Cast: Suriya, Rajisha Vijayan, Prakash Raj, Lijo Mol Jose, Manikandan and Rao Ramesh
Director: TJ Gnanavel
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
The star power of Suriya - it is harnessed with impressive control - propels Jai Bhim, writer-director TJ Gnanavel's legal procedural centred on an activist-lawyer's fight to secure justice for a pregnant tribal woman whose husband goes missing from police custody after a false robbery case is foisted on him. The amalgamation of the lead actor's charisma, the urgency of the theme and the force of the no-holds-barred storytelling results in an immersive and riveting film that calls attention to the plight of an oppressed community languishing on the fringes of society.
In the opening sequence of the Tamil film, streaming on Amazon Prime Video from November 2, a few tribal men emerge one by one from a jail only to be herded into a police van and taken away to be charged with crimes they did not commit. The Inspector-General of Police, obviously responding to a nudge from his political bosses, has resolved to close all pending cases in Tami Nadu. The tribals are easy prey.
Cut to a village. A group of Irula tribals smoke rats out of their holes to save the farmlands of the region's rich and powerful. They are expert snake-catchers, too, and are summoned to trap cobras and other serpents. But no matter how useful they are, their status is perennially precarious.
You should stay put in the mountains, says an official dismissively when a few Irula men plead with him for assistance to get out of the limbo they are stuck in. "We are a clan born to thrive," goes a line in a song that plays on the soundtrack (all the numbers in Jai Bhim are non-lip synched). The irony is piercing.
In the film's specificity - it is based on true events revolving around a 1995 habeas corpus petition that human rights lawyer K. Chandru (later a judge) filed in the Madras High Court - lies its universality. Given its unflinching, uncluttered underscoring of how shockingly easy it is to derail justice when it comes to supplicants who do not possess the requisite social capital, Jai Bhim is a hard-hitting film that hasn't come a day too soon.
In narrating the tale of an Irula man, Rajakannu (Manikandan), a victim of police brutality, and his wife Sengeni (Lijomol Jose), who is expecting her second child while the father is away working in a brick-kiln to supplement the family's meagre income, Jai Bhim encapsulates the larger truth of caste atrocities, crushing poverty and police brutality.
Rajakannu and Sengeni live with their daughter Alli, like all the other Irulas, in a mud house. The man promises to build his wife a brick house someday. At no point does that simple aspiration seem attainable considering the hurdles in Rajakannu's path.
Of late, there has been a spate of Tamil films that have probed the linkages between police highhandedness and caste violence. To that extent, Jai Bhim treads familiar ground. What sets it apart somewhat from the likes of Visaranai, Pariyerum Perumal Asuran and Karnan is the setting. It moves beyond the village and the police station (both key locations of the film) and opts for the courtroom as the principal arena for a battle of attrition between a steadfast legal campaigner and the unrelenting might of the state.
The law is a weapon in the hands of Chandru but there is a whole, well-oiled, upper caste-controlled system in place to blunt its sharpness. In the real world, the perils of speaking up for the downtrodden have manifested themselves repeatedly in recent years in the arrest and incarceration without trial of tribal rights activists.
Justice Chandru retired in 2013. The scenario was never rosy for tribals and forest dwellers in this country, but the situation that obtains today is particularly appalling. That is why while watching a film set in as defined a context, culture and time as Jai Bhim, one is acutely and painfully aware of its pan-India, contemporary relevance.
Suriya, stepping out manfully from his comfort zone, slips effortlessly and efficaciously into the skin - and spirit - of activist-turned-advocate Chandru, who made a career out of standing up for retrenched factory workers and landless tribals before becoming a judge whose verdicts had far-reaching social impact in Tamil Nadu.
The star drives the project all right, but he does not let his presence eclipse the central concern of the film. Jai Bhim is Chandru's story and Suriya more than measures up to its demands. It is equally Rajakannu and Sengeni's story. Lijomol Jose is impressive in the role of the hapless Sengeni - she conveys the woman's anguish and haplessness in all its raw, corrosive starkness.
Jai Bhim is a tribute to the crusader's tenacity as much as it is a record of the injustice that is routinely meted out to the Irula tribe whose members have no land, no ration cards and no voting rights. Worst of all, they have little access to legal redressal when they are hounded by a pack of wolves in uniform and driven to the wall in the manner that Sengeni is.
Former journalist Gnanavel's screenplay employs, to a large extent, recognisable methods of a conventional underdog-fighting-all-odds story but skilfully pressing them into the service of urgent social-political commentary.
Jai Bhim pulls no punches and projects the policemen -especially three of them from a small police station led by a sub-inspector under pressure to nab a thief who has stolen jewellery from ruling party politician's home - as evil personified, individuals who will stop at nothing to save their own skins.
The cops zero in on Rajakannu and, unable to find him, round up his brother Irutappan, nephew Mosakutty and sister Panchaiamma and subject them to third-degree treatment in custody. And when they eventually lay their hands on Rajakannu, the torture takes on chilling proportions.
With the help of an adult literacy scheme teacher Mythra (Rajisha Vijayan), Sengani, after knocking on many doors in vain, approaches Chandru in Chennai. The latter takes on the police brass and the state's Advocate General, with some help from an IG-rank officer Perumalsamy (Prakash Raj), in a bid to reunite Sengeni with her husband.
Jai Bhim hinges on the long-drawn judicial battle that ensues and takes well over two and a half hours to reach its culmination. Moments in the film might feel just a touch stretched, but with Suriya in formidable form and Prakash Raj, Lijimol Jose and Manikandan extending able support, Jai Bhim drives home its point emphatically. It isn't a film that will be forgotten in a hurry.