An opening or closing scene with someone coming out of prison is a trope in Tamil/Indian cinema. A lead character may get out of prison to wreak havoc and seek revenge, a villain appearing out of the gates establishes badassery at the outset or at times, a character not given to that kind of parity simply seeks a return to an old life or the beginning of a new life.
Jai Bhim (the call never uttered in the film), written and directed by Tha. Se. Gnanavel and an Amazon Prime release, wants us to register something larger behind the names and faces getting out of prison. It’s not the family or henchmen (there are party workers if the word can be used interchangeably) waiting outside but those seemingly on the wrong side of the wall – the police. They are here to pin pending cases on the innocent men who walk out, men from the marginalised background; in this film’s context – Irula tribes. A constable separates the wheat from the chaff – he asks the Irula people to stand aside and lets the Thevars, Vanniyars, Mudaliars go. Gnanavel uses a familiar trope to introduce not a hero or a villain but a community with no identity, ration cards or address proofs, who are made to slog to get the Scheduled Tribe certificate by the government and bureaucracy.
On these terms, Jai Bhim is unapologetically straightforward in its politics – sometimes even resorting to a certain smugness that can be seen in actors who know their characters are doing the right thing. It is also straightforward in an unblemished fashion – Gnanavel doesn’t mind naming names, something Tamil cinema either stutters with or uses some other form of sleight to communicate. Jai Bhim can also count as torture porn, the police brutality raw and unadorned, the policemen never flinch, sometimes the camera does, trying to find a safe space to hide when a police officer disrobes a woman inside a cell in front of her brothers who have already undergone more than just physical torture.
Set in 1995, Jai Bhim based on true events and Justice K Chandru comes when a real-life case of police brutality and custody death with caste dynamics – the father son duo of Jayaraj and Bennix in 2020 – is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Jai Bhim succeeds in its balancing act – it is both a story of Sengani (Lijomol Jose, ironically in black face to play an Irular woman), her family of husband Rajakannu (Manikandan), brothers-in-law Irutappan and Mosakutty, and lawyer Chandru, Suriya the saviour, an Ambedkarite with law as his only weapon. While Gnanavel stretches the limits to establish the caste and power inequality (multiple spoken lines, looks, gestures, behaviour, a wide shot of the people walking from the fertile lands they work in to a parched landscape with no agriculture, their home), he shines best when drawing drama out of the courtroom battle that turns into a lawyer procedural with Chandru at the helm.
Gnanavel presents his lawyer the most decorated court hall, the interior space where major truths are uncovered is given a festooned look with a high ceiling, huge frames of colonial era administrators and a movie preview theatre size gallery for the public. He even appoints a Brahmin lawyer (MS Bhaskar) who subscribes only to faith and has no case and no ideology as a literal court jester to pass comments on the proceedings, a low-key refashioning of a Shakespearian ghost.
Jai Bhim gives Suriya room to flex his mass muscles but reserves enough moments for Sengani and her heart in the fight.
Gnanavel, with cinematographer SR Kathir uses a mix of low angle and high angle shots but inverts them in unexpected moments. The policemen are sometimes shot from low angles, they are giants, but they are always at a disadvantage from the point of view of the audience. Sengani and Suriya are shot from high angles, they are the underdogs even during their most powerful moments. Jai Bhim has several overhead shots but in one scene, Gnanavel places the camera at the top edge of the police station with the three policemen and Sengani in the room. They are at their weakest, ordering but really pleading with Sengani to withdraw her case. It’s a wonderful 'shoe is on the other foot moment' and the film lets Suriya take a backseat and stretches this scene till Sengani walks back home after rejecting the police’s offer to escort her home in the jeep.
There is a cringey bit in the end where Chandru calls Sengani the present day Kannagi, an overdone affectation. Through this all, Sengani is pregnant with her second child, her bloating physical aspect informing the time period of the case without explicit detail. The new baby becomes symbolic of long due dawn in her life which would have been just fine without invoking Silappatikaram in current day context.
The investigation gets overlong, new information creeps up on us rapidly, but the fascinating bits lie in the way Gnanavel and editor Philomin Raj structure the narrative, events are repeated, sometimes the same shot in the same angle, only in the repetition does the frame complement the situation of the characters. Through the side of a car, we see Chandru the lawyer and Inspector General Permualsamy (Prakash Raj) debating over each other’s jobs and values, one framed through the front window and another the back. Gnanavel repeats the frame later, this time between the pillared railings of the high court. The twain never meets unlike the twin brothers (one of them a poor petty criminal) in a Tamil film with the Ilaiyaraaja song referenced as the descriptor for Sengani’s love for Rajakannu. The name of the film? Sattam En Kayil (“The law is in my hands”). That’s a choice.