Director: TJ Gnanavel
Actors: Suriya, Prakash Raj, K. Manikandan, Lijomol Jose, Rajisha Vijayan
Violence in custody and even death are not uncommon in India. We saw the blindnesses of Baghalapur in 1979-80 when 31 prisoners got acid in their eyes. They were mutilated for life. It was one of the darkest spots in the Indian police / judicial system. There have been numerous other cases of torture and murder (eg encounters) by Khaki’s men. Yes, the lawyers fought for the victims and helped right the heinous wrongs perpetrated by the cops. One of them was lawyer K Chandru, who became a judge of the Madras High Court. One of the cases he handled as a lawyer involving tribal members in a village in Tamil Nadu created a huge stir among the police and the judiciary. It was 1993 and TJ Gnanavel’s last directorial bid on Amazon Prime – Jai Bhim – focuses on this landmark case that Chandru fought and won.
Although it lasts almost three hours, it manages to keep us going. There is not a moment that drags on. On the contrary, I felt the last 20 minutes seemed rushed with the handwriting – also from Gnanavel – trying to answer a whole bunch of questions. Perhaps this section could have been more elaborate by removing parts of the previous parts.
Nonetheless, Jai Bhim is thrilling and could fit right into black crime with layer after layer peeled off to reveal a gruesome truth. It’s horrific because it exposes the police atrocities – in its worst form – on the helpless and illiterate Irula Tribals, who make their living catching rats and snakes.
Gnanavel presents a stirring contrast between the police and the Irulas. As the cops ruthlessly ravage even a pregnant woman, undressing another in the dungeon, the tribals care about life and nature. They don’t want to kill snakes that might have entered a house, preferring to catch it and release it into the woods. They don’t want to kill a baby rat. You have to live, they feel.
Some may find a slight narrative imbalance. While the men in uniform seem almost demonic, the tribals seem almost angelic and perfectly clean. This may not always be the case.
However, a considerable effort was made to prevent the film from descending into a tense melodrama. The High Court scenes, where a Habeas Corpus petition is heard, are understated and in fact realistic – devoid of the exaggerations we see in many Indian films.
And the performance is first class. Suriya probably gives the best of her career as Chandru, who takes up the case of poor and unhappy pregnant Irula, tried with admirable restraint by Lijomol Jose. As Sengani, she’s just great trying on a distraught woman when she finds her husband, Rajakannu (another compelling performance here from K. Manikandan) missing after being accused of jewelry theft and arrested by the police. He is taken to a dungeon where he is mercilessly beaten to obtain a confession. “I am not a thief”, he repeats in vain!
Is Rajakannu guilty? If not, who is it? These are answered at the end – a bit unclear though. But the plot has a lot more to tell us, luckily in a controlled way. Even police violence does not have the right to change. Good script and good acting with Suriya effortlessly slipping into character. Much of his characteristic manners are missing. And it’s a good thing. I’m glad we didn’t see Suriya the hero, but Suriya the lawyer who puts her heart and soul into a case to bring justice to an oppressed woman.
Streaming on Amazon Prime starting November 2, Jai Bhim is not to be missed.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator, and film critic who has watched hundreds of films at home and away at film festivals like Cannes, Venice, and Tokyo, among others.