Updated: November 12, 2021 7:23:15 am
Movies based on the real-life struggles of marginalised groups are rare in mainstream Indian cinema. T J Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim is amongst the few that engages with issues of identity and institutionalised discrimination with some sincerity. It is based on the true story of the struggle of Parvathi (Sengani in the movie), an Irula woman, to find and secure justice for her husband, who is arrested and tortured in police custody in a false case of theft, only to disappear from custody later.
Jai Bhim has a powerful cast with Suriya playing the protagonist, based on the communist lawyer-turned-judge, K Chandru, Lijomol Jose as Sengani and Manikandan as her husband, Rajakannu. The movie is a portrayal of the life, occupation and culture of the Irula tribe, their aspiration for a better life and education, and the daily exclusions, along with torture and mass incarceration, that they face — all nested in the deeply hierarchical and illiberal democratic structure of Tamil Nadu.
Set in the early 1990s, the movie shows Rajakannu working as a snake catcher in the homes and farms of the very upper-caste landlords who snub and shun him. Yet, the homeless, landless citizenship of the Irulas is not void of hope and draws meaning from their proximity to nature and the protections enshrined in the Constitution.
Justice Chandru makes no bones about his communist leanings in real life and this is shown well in the movie by Gnanavel. The symbolism of the red flag with the hammer and sickle, banners and posters, along with images and statues of Karl Marx are found in the background of various scenes. Justice Chandru hunts down evidence for the custodial murder of Rajakannu and his wrongful arrest for theft, while arguing a habeas corpus petition filed by Sengani in the high court. The depiction of the violence and cruelty faced by the incarcerated Rajakannu and his close relatives is gut-wrenching and the pregnant Sengani’s quest for justice, despite the trauma, is inspiring. The story unfolds as advocate Chandru argues the case and takes on the mighty apparatus of the state as a good cop (played by Prakash Raj) joins the battle for conscience.
Jai Bhim is also a commentary on the masculine nature of the Indian state, its loose structures permeated by the caste and kinship powers that enable and institutionalise discrimination against marginalised groups like Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and even Muslims.
Despite the realism embedded in the movie, one is left wanting more. Does Suriya look like Justice Chandru? Tamil movies could definitely do better to inculcate an appreciation for dark skin and non-mainstream imagery. Another concern is with the portrayal of Left politics. Hugo Gorringe, a sociologist and scholar of Tamil Nadu, suggests that politics is also a game of pragmatism and the Left movements too are under compulsion to adopt pragmatic politics. It is this pragmatism that forced the Left to focus on issues of caste and social exclusion in Tamil Nadu. One is left wondering why the movie is titled Jai Bhim as Ambedkar is neither evoked nor portrayed as the guiding light except once, when Chandru mentions that Ambedkar was sidelined by Gandhi and Nehru.
The current pressures of politics and the resulting pragmatism may need the symbolic presence of Ambedkar, with an Ambedkar being available for everyone. For legal activism and in a legal drama oriented towards social justice, Ambedkar could be more inspiring than Marx as he had believed that the process of civil repair requires smaller and continual revolutions in society and the institutional mechanisms of justice. The quest for justice and power is a continuous process for marginalised groups. As the lyrics of one song in Jai Bhim go:
Take the power in your hand/ Dare to take power in your hand/ You have no choice but that.
We must also stay aware that the Irulas are still waiting for substantive power and their Ambedkar is yet to seize the moment. We need many more movies like Jai Bhim in our struggle for a better world.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 11, 2021 under the title ‘Seeking our Ambedkar’. The writer is professor of sociology at IIT Bombay