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At one point in this nearly three-hour-long film, there is a goosebumps-raising moment that has a tribal woman — also the protagonist — turning her back on power, refusing to bow down to the system of dominance that has exploited the fruits of their labour, quite literally. Looking at it purely from the point of view of Tamil cinema’s masala conventions, it is essentially a “mass” scene written for a Dalit character to give her a chance to look at her oppressors in the eye and perhaps tell them: “You cannot break me.”

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Senggeni (Lijomol Jose), the wife of Rajakannu (Manikandan, in yet another brilliant performance) who is fighting a lonely battle in the road to justice for husband’s custodial torture and death, gets this rousing moment because of her lawyer Chandru (Suriya). Or rather, because of the backing of a huge Tamil cinema star. Does it reflect reality? No. But does it work as a self-congratulatory, mass scene? Yes. It is also, thanks to Sean Roldan’s pummelling music, a really good stretch that communicates the intention that went into conceiving such a placement in the first place. Yet, something seems broken. Either the desired effect it has on us or the scene construction feels superficial at some level.

Jai Bhim
  • Cast: Suriya, Manikandan, Lijomol Jose, Prakash Raj, Rajisha Vijayan and Rao Ramesh
  • Director: Tha Se Gnanavel
  • Storyline: Based on real incidents that happened in the ‘90s Tamil Nadu, Jai Bhim casts light on a ghastly case and the subsequent long road to justice for the wife of a man from the Irular community who is falsely accused

Mind you, this superficiality doesn’t stem from Jai Bhim itself, but from the consciousness of having a Tamil cinema star playing a Saviour and leading from the front. Props to Suriya and to an extent Tha Se Gnanavel, the film, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from the onslaught of the Saviour Complex. For, Suriya comes across more of an ally here. But this doesn’t take away the point that the scene discussed above is a testament to the tiny trade-offs you will have to pay, in order to mainstream-ise stories of injustice and exploitation — all of which has now come out of the Dalit movement. Are we ready to forgive and forget this stream of consciousness for these trade-offs, is a good place to leave for introspection. While in the case of Jai Bhim, it is both a yes and no. But these are problems outside of the film.

Also Read | Why Suriya’s ‘Jai Bhim’ could be the most important film in his career

As for Jai Bhim, it is perhaps one of the boldest films to come out of Tamil cinema. Most of you might confuse its boldness with the film’s ghastly violence, showing the extreme of police brutality and custodial torture (let me spare the details, but some of these scenes are really disturbing). But that is not it. Consider the way it opens and you will understand where I am going with this.

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Perhaps what is more important is, there has never been a recent Tamil film where the names of dominant caste groups are explicitly mentioned, in the fear of the ripple effect it might create. There is, in fact, a scene where a dominant caste group member can be heard saying, “Unga kudusai-ya kollutha evalavu neram aagum (how long do you think it’ll take for us to set your house on fire).” But Jai Bhim doesn’t turn its back on all that. The politics here is not watered down; it is direct and takes an incisive look. It doesn’t punch down, but up. This is a film that strips down the individual components of caste, law enforcement and justice system and questions each of them on the witness stand.

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Suriya on 'JaiBhim': Why this is an important movie

jeetwin,What Tha Se Gnanavel also gets it right is the manner in which Dalits and people from tribal communities are exploited for their labour. Rajakannu earns a living by making bricks for his oppressors, but he cannot build a house for himself. He is called on every time there are rodents (or snakes) in the fields but isn’t allowed to touch or strike a conversation with a dominant caste member — he gets shooed away by a lady, when he says they come from the same village. For almost close to 40 minutes, we get to see the myriad ways caste takes shape in Rajakannu’s life and the irony plays out beautifully, even if this may sound slightly insensitive.

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