Despite Criticism, Suriya's 'Jai Bhim' Is an Important Film That's Long Overdue
Criticism about its aesthetics don't matter, 'Jai Bhim' starring Suriya tells a story that India needs to watch.
Ever since its release, Suriya's Jai Bhim has been receiving a lot of praise from everyone including the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, who spoke about how the film kept his heart heavy the whole night. This success and recognition has also brought out two viewpoints against the film directed by TJ Gnanavel and has initiated interesting conversations that need to be heard.
The first point was made by a prominent film critic in his review on a pan-Indian entertainment platform. The review gained more traction after several social media users expressed their dislike in the way he approached a film like Jai Bhim. From the very start of the 7-minute review, the critic badgered the film, calling it "a cry baby movie" that aimed to garner sympathy from the audience using background music and an overuse of visual language. He ended the review reiterating and rephrasing a dialogue from the film saying, "just because you make a movie on tribals and human rights doesn't mean it's a good film." The critic also goes on to say how the scenes of police torture are portrayed only to attract the viewer's pity.
The definition of what makes a 'good film' in the historical context of Tamil cinema has been for long defined by a select few directors and the select audience that it caters to.
This is not just limited to films but also to music, arts, and literature. The Dravidian movement has constantly challenged it at every step with movies like Parasakthi in 1952, questioning not just societal norms but also religion. Yet, in spite of all this, Dalit cinema in Tamil Nadu has only seen the big screen with the arrival of revolutionary directors like PA Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, Vetrimarran, and Athiyan Athirai only in the last 10 years. The change that they created was so undeniable that even other directors seem inspired to talk about caste at any small capacity in their films. Soorarai Pottru is one good example because it takes the life of an upper-caste man and turns it into an anti-caste take with dialogues like "I want to break the cost barrier and the damn caste barrier too".
PA Ranjith recalls the number of problems he faced just to place a picture of Ambedkar in one of the shots in his first film. The foundations that these anti-caste directors laid for the past 10 years is the reason we have a film titled Jai Bhim in 2021. Slowly, the commercial success of such hard-hitting stories has been made possible due to the Dalit centered movies that reinforce social justice values while constantly talking about the need for education.
It is no longer the "market" or a "specific audience" that decides or defines what a good movie is. It is no longer the powerful or the privileged that will tell how these stories have to be told. These stories will not submit to be measured by an imagined sense of merit and definition of art. The violence will not be toned down or shown artistically or poetically just so it is edible for the majority because real-life police brutality and atrocities committed against the marginalised have none of the above.
In an interview, the real-life Justice Chandru, who fought the case as a lawyer then, revealed that the grotesque nature of the actual case was far more inhumane to depict even on an OTT platform.
So, if the portrayal of violence of a real-life incident if for some portrayed on screen only to garner pity, then the problem lies with the viewer and not the makers of the film. One must also question themselves as to why their pity wasn't garnered by the film? Was it because the portrayal didn't fit their "aesthetics" or was it because the ideology of the film irked you. Though I partly agree that those scenes of violence and police brutality tend to strip the dignity of the tribal communities, calling it a 'cry baby movie' that's begging for the audience's pity is not a call for the privileged to make.
The second point that has been made by anti-caste representatives is about the motives of the director TJ Gnanavel and actor Suriya. There have been parallels drawn to Anubhav Sinha's Hindi film Article 15 and the saviour complex of the protagonist. Another argument is about the authenticity of the film itself when it is not made by someone from the Irular community. The big problem with expecting marginalised communities to come forward and take up cinema as a medium to tell their stories - it's a huge ask.
First-generation graduates are more keen to get into courses that can get them immediate guaranteed job opportunities, which is the farthest away from the film industry where the percentage of those who "make it" is extremely slim, even amongst the privileged. As a pure courtroom drama that is focused on police atrocities against tribal communities, Gnanavel tells the story in all his honesty. Suriya's character is given no side stories, backstory, love interest, or fight scenes that are expected in commercial films with big name heroes. Suriya playing the protagonist has given Jai Bhim a huge boost and added to the efforts of the whole team giving them the success it has enjoyed.
Calling Jai Bhim a saviour complex narrative like Article 15 is also short-sighted. Manikandan, who played the role of Rajakannu, recently spoke about how the actual people of the community felt about their stories being shown.
He recalls how they were inconsolably emotional that the world will finally know about a community that has been forsaken by both the government and a society that calls itself progressive. Even if Manikandan's words were not to be trusted or taken as a seal of approval for the film from the Irular community, Jai Bhim still remains the only source of mainstream documentation of the atrocities against the Irular community. Only a handful of attempts have been made to document the life stories of these communities that face extreme hardships. Iyan Karthikeyan’s documentary Adaiyaalam is one such example that talks about how there is a system of exploitation of tribal communities through bonded labor in many brick factories and tea estates across the southern states.
Jai Bhim might have its own set of problems in its making, its representation of the Irular community and in preserving their dignity, however it's not a film that can be brushed aside in a conversation about atrocities against tribal communities. Someday we will have someone from the Irulars sharing better stories on behalf of their community, but till then Jai Bhim will remain as a mirror questioning our privilege and wilful ignorance that resulted in thousands of such human rights violations. It will always irk us that the story of Sengeni and Rajakannu is just one of the many that were brought out.
Jai Bhim is not the story of the victory of law but the portrayal of an uphill, impossible battle where a many more fall through the cracks of the justice system than the ones who find justice.
(Daniel Sukumar is a writer and spoken word poet. His passion lies in writing extensively about caste inequalities, mental health, and social injustice. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.