‘Jai Bhim’ employs certain techniques to create an ephemeral empathy for Adivasis because it believes that it is not easy for mainstream society to empathise with a poor, ‘filthy’ rat-catcher, says the author.

Suriya as a lawyer surrounded by Irula men, women and children in a scene from Jai BhimSCREENGRAB/ AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
Voices Caste violence Wednesday, November 10, 2021 - 18:01

Jai Bhim, the recent Tamil movie directed by TJ Gnanavel, created a sensation even before its release on November 2 on Amazon Prime Video, as the title has a great significance for Dalits, particularly Dalit activists. The film can be watched in three languages: Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. The themes of caste and anti-caste ideology are not new to offbeat Tamil cinema and to mainstream high-budget movies of star heroes like Rajinikanth and Dhanush, while it is relatively new for the Telugu film industry to witness star heroes like Venkatesh and Naga Chaitanya acting in films like Narappa (2021 Telugu remake of the Tamil Asuran) and Love Story (2021) respectively.

Jai Bhim is a film set in the mid-1990s in a village of Tamil Nadu. In the opening scene, Rajakannu and his wife Sengani among others appear catching rats on the agricultural lands to help the village landlord, who in turn shows contempt towards the very group of people who are helping him. Rajakannu belongs to the Irula community, an Adivasi (aboriginal) group of traditional healers and catchers of snakes and rats.

Many Adivasi groups in India suffer the stigma of criminality due to The Habitual Offenders Act, 1952 which replaced the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. These laws label certain Adivasi groups as essentially criminal. People from these groups are often arbitrarily arrested, detained, subjected to torture by the police at the slightest pretext.

Jai Bhim throws light on such systemic violence against the Adivasi groups in India. After a theft in the landlord’s house, police detain Rajakannu’s wife Sengani, his sister Pachaiammal, brother-in-law Mosakutty and brother Iruttapan, and torture them in lockup to find Rajakannu’s whereabouts. Rajakannu is later arrested on his way back from a town where he works under a labour contractor. Rajakannu, Iruttapan and Mosakutty face brutal torture in custody before the police announce their alleged escape. Sengani then approaches lawyer Chandru with the help of a teacher and civil rights activist. Chandru supports Sengani in filing a habeas corpus petition in the Madras High Court.

Initially, Jai Bhim reminds one of Vetrimaran’s Visaranai (2015) with the explicit and prolonged scenes of custodial torture. However, Jai Bhim has a hero, unlike Visaranai. In fact, it has several heroes and villains throughout the film. In other words, it has only black and white characters. Visaranai blatantly uncovered the dark side of the police department – its brutality on working class migrant labourers to extract a confession to a theft in which they were framed. Visaranai was complex, puzzling the audience with the intricacies of bureaucracy, caste, class and Indian judiciary. For example, the policeman who tortures the migrant labourers is insulted by his superior that he has no brains because he belongs to a reserved category. It is difficult for the audience to take sides as the Dalit cop kills Dalits in a fake encounter in the climax.

No doubt Jai Bhim is based on the life of Justice Chandru who fought relentlessly for the downtrodden. But every narration of even a ‘real life’ story has a perspective.

The film depicts the events in the real life case on the custodial killing of Rajakannu. The petition filed by his wife Parvathi was one of the longest fought cases in the history of the Madras HC. But in the movie, the entire case is fought out within the limited time of a few months as Sengani is visibly pregnant with her second child throughout the film. If the case was fought for a decade, a woman can’t be pregnant throughout the case. Sengani’s pregnancy plays a major role in the film, helping to gain empathy from the audience. The historic court case that ran for a decade is shrunk to a period equal to Sengani’s third-trimester.

The portrayal of violence by mainstream society as well as by the state against Adivasis is supposed to catch our attention, but unfortunately the movie entraps the audience with some Brahminical sentiments. The narrative subscribes to Brahminical hegemony in order to seek validation for the portrayal of the subjugation of Adivasis at the intersections of Brahminical modern state (though oxymoronic) and feudalism of the village space.

The film also employs Brahminical sentiments in various scenes centred around the thali. When the policemen insult Sengani for wearing a gold thali – as her husband is accused of stealing gold jewellery – she defends herself by praising her husband’s hard work through which he was able to earn enough to buy it for her. In another scene, Sengani promises to pay Chandru (played by Suriya) by selling her thali, the only valuable thing in her possession. While performing Rajakannu’s last rites without his body, Sengani cries bitterly holding her thali. Rajakannu is arrested a few minutes after he buys a rattle for his unborn child. When Sengani appears in the High Court for the first time, instead of requesting the court to present her husband, she says, “Please bring the father of my two children”. It creates a tragic effect as one of the two children is an unborn child in her womb.

The film exhausts all possible ways of creating an emotional impact, probably because it believes that it is not easy for mainstream society to empathise with a poor, ‘filthy’ rat-catcher whom they do not consider a fellow human. Suppose Sengani didn’t have a gold thali – like many Dalit and Adivasi women don’t – would the portrayal of police brutality alone not have created an effect to make the film validated by the dominant caste audience? Therefore, the film uses various Brahminical middleclass sentiments around marriage, pregnancy and motherhood. The dominant castes in India are probably not ignorant about the brutal physical violence and endemic symbolic violence Dalits and Adivasis are subjected to, but in order to create a screen-time ephemeral empathy for Adivasis, the film employs certain techniques. Those signifiers are part of the sociological, psychological and linguistic structures of Brahminical society, which perhaps constructs meaning as almost an unconscious process.

Anti-caste films with upper caste heroes have a seemingly neutralising effect on upper caste audiences concerning individualism and structural violence. When both the oppressor and the saviour are upper caste males, it generates a meaning that caste is not structural violence but an individual belief. Thus, educated dominant caste youth often proclaim the absence of caste simply because they don’t believe in caste. Dominant caste audiences can identify with the dominant caste hero. They can anyway empathise with the image of Dalits in subhuman conditions but not with Dalits who sport moustaches, ride bikes and sit beside them in classrooms.

In Visaranai, there is no hope created in the minds of the audience regarding the survival of the accused. Cases such as the Kilvenmani massacre (1968) and Chunduru killings (1991) are neither part of the film’s theme nor reference points, as Dalits could not succeed in attaining legal justice. In Jai Bhim, since Suriya is the hero the audience is assured that the victims will win the case. To put it differently, a success story was picked up as the subject of the film, and it required a charming hero like Suriya. Could the film have cast a not conventionally handsome star like Suriya who has a history of pan India validation through blockbusters like Ghajini?

The term “innocent tribes” is used by Chandru and DGP Perumalsamy (played by Prakash Raj) several times in the film. Chandru tries to prove two facts: Rajakannu was framed for the theft and was brutally killed by the police in custody. These two are mutually exclusive cases. Whether Rajakannu is proven guilty in the theft case or not, the police must be accountable for their brutality and custodial killings. But both the defence lawyer and Chandru argue about Rajakannu’s guilt and innocence, which defeats the purpose of human rights, according to which every human has the right to life unconditionally by the virtue of being born as a human. Unfortunately, the audience is not allowed a chance to delve into questions of human rights.

The audience probably waited eagerly till the end of the film to understand the significance of the title. There are no explicit remarks on the Ambedkarite Dalit movement while the Communist red flags and logos are evident in the background of several scenes. After the climax, the film makes some reference to Ambedkar’s writings as influencing Justice Chandru’s ideology without mentioning anything about Ambedkar’s ideas on social justice, constitutional morality and annihilation of caste.

The film is set in the 1990s, a period in which the Dalit movement was not absent. Specifically, this period was marked by the rise of the Dalit movement amid several contexts of caste atrocities in south India. Cases like the Chunduru massacre invoked the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 and gained national attention. The film makes no reference to the Ambedkarite Dalit movement but makes a passing reference to communal violence and the rise of Hindutva by showing a life-size cut-out of Mani Ratnam­’s Bombay (1995), which revolved around the communal riots in the city of Bombay. Jai Bhim seems to have ignored the symbols of Dalit resistance and upheld the Left movement while making a mere reference to Dalit resistance in its title.

Sowjanya Tamalapakula is an Assistant Professor at the School of Gender Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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