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Jai Bhim: A Flawed But Important Take On Caste Politics In Tamil Nadu

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Trigger warning: mentions of custodial torture and police brutality.

“Jai Bhim” is a film about the plight and resistance of the Irula tribe, a denotified tribe from Tamil Nadu. Their resistance is aided by an egalitarian lawyer, played by the popular Tamil actor Suriya. In a country where casteism is still rampant, movies like Jai Bhim matter.

Jai Bhim is a story that speaks volumes with each and every scene. It was also nice to see a mainstream Tamil actor like Suriya choose to portray a role about caste issues without having a saviour complex, unlike the Bollywood film “Article 15”, where everyone was too busy lauding Ayushmann Khurrana.

Although one must note that superstars Rajinikanth and Dhanush have starred in many films dealing with issues faced by the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) communities. Think Kaala, Asuran and Karnan.

Jai Bhim’s story revolves around the Irula tribe of Tamil Nadusons and daughters of the hills who have been living a life of misery, as they attempt to unsuccessfully build a better life for themselves in a land that refuses to see beyond their caste identity.

A still from the film Jai Bhim featuring an adivasi woman and man standing next to each other in a forest. The man has their daughter hoisted on his shoulders.
A still from Jai Bhim featuring the main characters: Rajakannu, his wife, Sengali, and their daughter, Alli. Photo credit:

Rajakannu, one of our main protagonists, is accused of stealing from the village president. As a result of this, he is falsely detained by the police.

When he and his relatives go missing from the police station after being brutally beaten up by the police, it is left to his pregnant wife, Sengani, to figure out where he has gone, and uncover the truth behind her husband’s disappearance.

It is to be noted that the plot of the film is based on a real case, that led to a landmark judgment by the Chennai High Court in 1993.

A Nuanced Take on Caste Politics in Tamil Nadu

What do I love about the movie? You get to see human beings, rather than a faceless, oppressed caste. Instead of focusing on the heroics of it all, at every step of the way, the director, TJ Gnanavel, brings the focus back to the injustice of it.

He reminds us of the people and the rich, complex lives they lead, rather than the alien gaze with which most movies treat caste oppression. It is by no means a perfect take on the subtleties of caste politics, but I believe that it is an important attempt nonetheless.

As @lawandemotions put it on Twitter, movies like Jai Bhim “break the self-imposed amnesia of members of the oppressor castes vis-a-vis caste based violence and marginalisation.”

They say that the narrative and representation might be in control of the oppressors and far from ideal, but it is still important. I agree!

It matters to have a scene in which a tribal woman walks away with her head held high. She is shown as someone with strength and power. Representation matters!

While the courtroom is dramatised, we need to move away from the idea that a political movie cannot have its share of entertainment value as well.

 An image of Suriya, in his character as Chandru, alongside the real Chandru, whose case the movie Jai Bhim is based on.
Suriya as Chandru, posing with the real Chandru. The courtroom bits have been dramatised in Jai Bhim, but they don’t take away from the message. Photo credit:

According to me, Jai Bhim treads the line perfectly because it will intrigue mainstream viewers enough to be invested and at the same time, it has a social message to deliver.

The Controversial Slapping Scene And Prakash Raj’s Response 

As for the controversial slapping scene which has drawn Prakash Raj much flak. I believe the actor was quite right when he said that the propaganda only lies in the hearts of those who could watch the movie and chose to focus on the slap and not the issue at hand.

The scene establishes beforehand that the character in question is a Tamilian, who chose to speak in Hindi in an attempt to lie.

A man with his hand on his cheek asks why he has been slapped. Another man responds saying it was because he didn't speak in Tamil.
A controversial still from the film Jai Bhim where a cop, played by Prakash Raj, slaps another character in the film for not speaking to him in Tamil. Photo credit:

Prakash Raj, who plays the role of an honest police officer, realizes this and slaps the character to make him speak in Tamil. If you choose to see it as a political statement, feel free to do so.

But, make sure that the same levels of political awareness are present when you watch mainstream Bollywood movies as well. Otherwise, it’s just plain hypocrisy.

For example, the “Sooryavanshi” trailer has scenes where the terrorists are seen taking namaaz before they kill people. The islamophobia is blatant.

Also, Jai Bhim’s focus on a denotified tribe enables public knowledge about DNTs (previously, disparagingly labelled as “criminal tribes” by the British). As Disha Wadekar puts it on Twitter, “Group criminality and police atrocities, is not just a ‘tribal issue’, but a caste issue at its very core.”

Is Torture Porn The Only Way To Make Others Empathise?

The only thing that affected me negatively were the scenes involving very graphic violence, to show the brutality of law enforcement. It almost felt like torture porn, and I found myself trying to rush through the scenes via 10-second-fast forwards.

As @hannecdotes puts it on Twitter, “What it essentially does, intentionally, is shock you with torture porn so you feel guilty. And guilt is a needless, redundant passive emotion that helps no movement. Savarna guilt takes us nowhere…”

They say that instead of making you angry against a brutal system, it leaves you with pity for the afflicted. According to them, the film leaves the Savarna audience with guilt and sympathy, not rage.

All said and done, I do hope that the movie will be aired in theatres soon so that the general public has access to it.

I think that Jai Bhim has the potential to inspire Savarna people to make a difference—to force us to actively acknowledge that we should view life through the lens of caste politics.

Featured image, a still from the film Jai Bhim, is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: 2D Entertainment, Amazon Prime Video.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Nov ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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