Before Suriya, as activist-advocate Chandru, listens to the story of Senganni, he asks her to explain what happened without overstating or understating the events. The statement is director TJ Gnanavel’s promise to us, the audience, that what we are going to watch in the movie is not his flight of fancy. The events in the movie actually happened to a group of people.
One can see why Gnanavel felt the need to include this line in the movie. For the events depicted in Jai Bhim fall well beyond our sight and grasp. Our interaction, if any, with the law enforcement agency would have been rather civil and courteous. You may have even felt that you got the better end of the interaction owing to your social standing, your level of education, the size of your wallet, the kind of vehicle you ride, and where you live. You would have even told the official that you know your rights and the law, and can stand up for yourself.
But, we won’t know what is it like for the people who inhabit the cracks of our vast democratic set-up. What is it like to be a person, who doesn’t even have an identity card? Or those whose body and dignity are taken for granted, and are subjected to unspeakable torture with impunity and zero consequences?
Sitting in our homes and behind the screen of privilege, it is possible to watch Jai Bhim and say, “huh, this is too much. How can these things happen to a person?” But truth is stranger than fiction. And that’s why Gnanavel adds this underhand disclaimer in Jai Bhim, to underline what we see is not an exaggeration of actual events.
Director Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai had already exposed us to the deep-seated rot in our criminal justice system. And his uncompromising grit made us experience the horror of police custodial torture. Similarly, Jai Bhim is also a detailed procedural drama but with less despondency.
Unlike Visaranai, in Jai Bhim we have Chandru, a rebellious, young advocate, wielding the powerful weapon of the law. Chandru takes up the case of a tribal woman, Senganni, whose husband Rajakannu’s whereabouts are unknown since he was taken away by the local cops on charges of theft.
At first, the case seems impossible as all evidence is in favour of the barbaric and bigoted cops. That’s the reason no other lawyer in the city was ready to fight for Senganni. But, Chandru stands up to the entire machinery of the government on behalf of the woman, who is heavily pregnant, and helpless. A follower of BR Ambedkar, Chandru is no knight in shining armour, However, he does wear a black robe and wields the knowledge of the Indian Constitution. He doesn’t live a king’s life. He rides in crowded buses and sits on the floors of the train in a general compartment.
Chandru’s first court appearance in the movie is about a man from a minority community who has been wrongly incarcerated by the cops, who are under pressure to close pending cases. With a single petition in the Madras High Court, Chandru manages to get bail not just for his client but about 7,000 people, who were possibly arrested on false charges across Tamil Nadu. That moment, you understand the power of courts and how it could be harnessed to hold unscrupulous men in power accountable.
Chandru is not the only hero of Jai Bhim. All heroes in this film are nonviolent but rebellious, who don’t obey any sort of tyranny. Take the example of Rajakannu, played by Manikandan. He is an embodiment of Gandhian virtues, even though he’s not aware of it himself. To put it like Gandhi, the cops can break Rajakannu’s bone, torture him or even kill him. Then, they will have his dead body, but not his obedience.
And to uphold the rights of modern-day Gandhi, we need a modern-day Ambedkar, aka Chandru. The men who are taken to violence are the villains in this movie. The barbaric methods of the cops were no match to the non-violent resistance and resilience of Rajakannu, Senganni and, of course, Chandru.
Suriya feels natural and very comfortable in the role of a firebrand advocate. It is as if he’s not just performing the lines written by the director, but he really believes in every word and gesture he delivers in this film.
Jai Bhim is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.