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Finding Ambedkar In ‘Jai Bhim’: Dissecting The Movie’s Ambedkarite Politics

Sumit Samos is an anti-caste activist who researches anti-caste student politics in central universities. He is currently pursuing MSc in Modern South Asian Studies, at the University of Oxford. He also works with the French Radio Live, Paris.

The recent Tamil movie ‘Jai Bhim’ directed by TJ Gnanavel has generated many interesting themes in public discussions.

Suriya on the poster for Jai Bhim.
Suriya on the poster for Jai Bhim.

Some of the important themes that are discussed widely are cultural politics, caste, cinematic depictions of marginalized communities, judiciary, custodial torture. The movie also discusses everyday processes of the state enacting itself through its agents, largely shaped by hierarchical social relations of caste interacting with tribes and castes that are criminalized or stigmatized historically.

However, this nature of the public discussion about cinema has been a trend for the last few years, especially with directors coming from Dalit backgrounds creating large-scale commercial movies with Dalit protagonists. Neeraj Ghaywan, PA Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, and Nagaraj Manjule are some of these prominent names. They have explored Indian society through stories of inter-caste love, caste violence, rural caste life, and urban slums, and more.

What stands out are the vivid cultural representations of caste life, mostly antagonistic in nature and Dalits as active subjects responding either as individuals or communities to caste dominations.

In the case of PA Ranjith, this is also supplemented with a thick symbolism of popular Ambedkarite politics, especially post the release of ‘Kaala’ in 2016. In popular Ambedkarite politics, the narrative of these directors has been juxtaposed with movies such as Article 15 and Madam Chief Minister in how caste is represented, and communities are portrayed.

This backdrop is quite important in understanding the contemporary debates about cultural production, gaze, and representations around the movie Jai Bhim. The movie is based on a real-life event in Tamil Nadu in 1993 where a lawyer named Justice Chandru takes up the case of an Irula tribe woman named Parvathi, in fighting against the custodial torture and murder of her husband Sandakan.

Sengani, Surya on the poster of Jai Bhim
Sengani’s character is based on Parvathy, an Irula tribe woman fighting against the custodial torture of her husband. A still from the movie.

Apart from the discussions around the technical cinematic aspects in film critic circles, there are multiple debates about the notion of ‘Saviour complex’, ‘Victim porn’, ‘excess of violence’ and ‘ideological mismatch’ that have emerged in general public discussions. To unpack each of these debates would require a long-detailed essay, so I would confine myself to just two strands of the debates which deal with the question of this film’s relation with Ambedkarite Politics and the notions of victimhood and assertions.

Is The Film Title ‘Jai Bhim’ Justified?

There are two sides to this debate which happens primarily through the title Jai Bhim, one questioning the title in relation to the movie as not corresponding to ‘Ambedkarite ideology’ per se, while the other side is hailing the story of the movie justifying the title.

The former claim their argument on the basis that the movie has overpowering symbolism of left politics while Ambedkar as a symbol appears less frequently. It is also being said that the title is an emotional manipulation with Dalits for commercial purposes who have sentimental attachment with Ambedkar.

While the latter argue about the significance of the title based on the substance of Ambedkar’s idea embedded in the narrative. In his recent article on Round Table India, Professor Vivek Kumar takes the former side of the argument. He critiques the mainstream journalists and film critics for influencing the common masses to see this film in a certain way and thus making a mockery especially of the agency of the Dalit-Bahujan masses.

What he misses here is that the movie is being appreciated and lauded by a certain section among Dalit-Bahujan masses, particularly from Tamil Nadu, who are drawing their critical observations based on their familiarity with regional specificities. They are not getting carried away with the emotive appeal of a mere slogan without capturing its substance. To argue that would make them devoid of their intellectual agency.

Professor Kumar attributes this appreciation categorically to the influence of the mainstream thereby entangling himself in the same criticism that he raises against them – of denying intellectual agency to the Dalit-Bahujan masses. He asks them not to influence the masses to see and understand the film in a certain way, yet goes on to argue how the movie should be seen and how it does not represent ‘Ambedkarite ideology’ not just in its content but also in relation to its title.

A still from the movie Jai Bhim.
Social media is witnessing debates in the movie about the notion of ‘Saviour complex’, ‘Victim porn’, ‘excess of violence’. A still from the movie Jai Bhim.

What ‘Constitutes’ Ambedkar Ideology?

Now, this begs a contentious yet compelling question as to what constitutes ‘Ambedkarite ideology’ and what are its appropriate cultural representations.

For the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh, it is political power that takes the front seat in defining Ambedkarite ideology, while for the Dalits of Maharashtra it is Buddhist cultural politics that becomes the central feature. Ambedkar’s trajectory and pragmatic positions in different situations, striving to ensure basic rights for untouchables, lower castes, and women, are pertinent to note here.

In my mind, it would be reductionist to take a few approaches and essentialize them as overarching ‘Ambedkarite ideology’ across regions.

There are peculiar historical trajectories of marginalized communities and their unique relationship with the society around them, engaging with religion, political movements, and regional identities in their struggle for emancipation. This complex amalgamation manifests itself distinctly in forms of approaching politics as well as in cultural representations, while also claiming to be Ambedkarite politics.

Dalit Christians who use aspects of liberation theology in social justice politics or Dalits who have engaged with Marxism along with Ambedkar reflect the above-mentioned distinction in their fight against Caste.

Jai Bhim translates into victory to Ambedkar in principle, whose lifelong primary fight was against caste embedded in social, cultural, political, economic, and institutional spaces. If that defines the substance of Ambedkar, then not just communities taking distinct forms, but even individuals such as Justice Chandru challenging the upper caste dominance in the court to provide justice to the Irula community underlies that principle.

A still image of Dr B R Ambedkar
What constitutes ‘Ambedkarite ideology’ and what are its appropriate cultural representations? Representational image.

He foregrounds the entire case on Article 32 as a constitutional remedy which Ambedkar referred to as the heart and soul of the constitution.

Justice Chandru’s fight to stop caste segregation in burial spaces and to provide Panchami lands for Dalits further highlights his anti-caste commitment. It is here I would argue that both diverse amalgamated cultural representations in Ambedkarite politics and principled institutional positions inspired by Ambedkar can simultaneously be carriers of the notion of justice. They can both claim to equality embodying aspects of Ambedkar reverberating his legacy.

Most importantly, Justice Chandru claims his inspiration from Ambedkar and his texts in enriching the work he did for the marginalized sections inside the court.

Having said this, one cannot also undermine the larger anxiety around appropriation and victimization of marginalized identity groups in cultural representations as well as their politics across the world. Such representations either reinforce antagonistic social attitudes or induce pity for their conditions from the dominant social groups. Neither of these outcomes aligns with the broader Ambedkarite aspirations.

On Portrayal Of Victimhood And Helplessness In Movies

This brings me to the second crucial question about the portrayal of helplessness, assertions, and individual heroes. How are these concepts impacted by our socio-psychological understanding of Ambedkarite politics? Are they isolated social phenomena or are there possibilities of all combined together in a complex web of events at times contingent upon each other? In a street protest of assertions when the police target and lock up youths from marginalized communities, it leads to helplessness in the community.

Sengani from the movie Jai Bhim
Sengini takes up the fight for justice asserting herself rather than being presented as a passive subject. A still from the movie.

Sengani and Jayakanu in this movie are aspiring to have a better house, pay for their childrens’ school, and are also engaged with romantic moments. The plot moves ahead and they are in utter helplessness. Amidst this, Sengani takes up the fight for justice asserting herself rather than being presented as a passive subject, while Justice Chandru deals with the case inside the court. Despite anticipating the police brutalities, Jayakanu asks Sengani to not give up on her.

But there are also moments where Sengani and Jayakanu break down, and eventually, after winning the case she is seen to be in tears with folded hands.

I would see this imagery less as a symbol of victimhood and more as an outburst of emotions as a human condition due to a series of events.

Sengani reminded me of Adivasi women activists Kuni Sikaka and Soni Sori who in Odisha and Chhatisgarh respectively fought against police brutality and branding of their communities.

How can we force-fit notions of victimhood and assertions onto communities in visible ways to create political narratives where it might not belong, it might well be either one of them or a combination of both?

Lastly, celebration of individual heroes does not bring structural changes, but it sets precedents and gives hope to imagine what structural changes look like for marginalized communities who are made to be devoid of justice and protection.

It is in this light that scholars such as Gail Omvedt, Eleanor Zelliot, P.S Krishnan are remembered and celebrated in Ambedkarite politics.

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