Updated: November 16, 2021 7:38:21 am
Tha Se Gnanavel’s Tamil film Jai Bhim has not only been well-received by the public and critics, but has also been applauded by political activists in Tamil Nadu. It has been praised for drawing attention to the lives and struggles of the Irulas, a Scheduled Tribe whose population in the state is just around two lakh.
Based on a real life case from 1993, handled by former Madras High Court judge K Chandru, who was then a lawyer, the film narrates the story of the custodial death of Rajakannu, an Irula man, and his wife’s fight for justice.
While the importance of the film’s social commentary has been acknowledged, its prolonged and detailed torture scenes have been questioned on ethical and moral grounds as they are seen as compromising the dignity of the very people for whom the film attempts to speak up. Additionally, naming the film after the Ambedkarite slogan “Jai Bhim” has been criticised in several quarters as the story seems to have been predominantly told from a communist perspective.
In fact, a superficial look at the film and its promotional material does make one wonder about the choice of title. The film is filled with images of the red communist flag and photos of Karl Marx and busts of Vladimir Lenin appear during several key moments. Inducing more doubt is the fact that the images of B R Ambedkar appear only a few times in the film. Further, K Chandru is himself a former member of the CPM. The rapid commodification of Ambedkarite anti-caste politics in pop-culture, particularly since the demise of Rohith Vemula, has additionally made several critics sceptical of the choice of title.
However, if we ignore the visual imagery of the film and focus on its core narrative, which is about a woman from a marginalised and vulnerable community accessing justice through constitutional means, we can see that Jai Bhim is essentially an Ambedkarite film.
In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, Ambedkar said that in order to maintain democracy, not only in form but also in fact, it is important to hold fast to constitutional methods in our struggle to achieve our social and economic objectives. He argued that when there was no way left for constitutional methods to proceed, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for unconstitutional methods. He called these unconstitutional methods the “grammar of anarchy” and insisted that sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.
While most anti-caste films, particularly in Tamil, have focussed on the Ambedkarite principles of social transformation — educate, agitate, organise — the importance of relying on constitutional methods has remained untouched. It is in this aspect that Gnanavel’s film stands out. At no point does the film or any of its characters romanticise or resort to unconstitutional methods in seeking justice.
Even among oppressed groups, those with a sizeable population have the advantage of organising themselves and pressurising the state for their rights or justice. However, in the case of groups whose population is minuscule, as with the Irulas, even this option is not available. It is only the Constitution and its provisions that can safeguard their rights.
By narrating the story of one of the longest habeas corpus petitions in the history of the Madras High Court, the film firmly reiterates the hope that the Constitution offers to the most oppressed, vulnerable and marginalised. By adhering closely to the words of Ambedkar, the film’s core narrative becomes undoubtedly Ambedkarite in nature. And there cannot be a more appropriate title for it than Jai Bhim.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 15, 2021 under the title ‘An Ambedkerite story’. The writer is a Chennai-based filmmaker
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