Jai Bhim and Karnan: To fight the system from within or outside?

Though the movies by TJ Gnanavel and Mari Selvaraj bear resemblance in the subject matter, the approach and treatment of it significantly vary.
Dhanush from Karnan and Suriya from Jai Bhim
Dhanush from Karnan and Suriya from Jai Bhim
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Jai Bhim and Karnan can be considered two of the most important socio political Tamil movies to have come out in 2021. They unveil the systemic injustices and cruelties that the communities marginalised by caste are subjected to in Tamil Nadu to a mainstream audience, and have been fortunate enough to win both critical acclaim and commercial success.

Jai Bhim has as its plot a real life tragic incident and the legal battle that followed after. Rajakannu (Manikandan), wrongly accused of theft because of the community he belongs to, suffers from police brutality along with his relatives, and eventually dies in custody. The police try to cover up the truth which sets off Sengeni (Lijomol), Rajakannu’s wife, on a quest for truth and justice. Advocate Chandru (Suriya) helps Sengeni by taking up the case. The movie, in telling this tale, manages to document the life of the Irular community, the difficulties they face in obtaining a caste certificate and other government documentations that prove their existence, and the atrocities committed by the caste society. Many appreciated the movie for its powerful screenplay and called it bold. Not everyone was in praise though. It also garnered casteist attacks from those who worry about the possible significance of the calendars that hang in the house of the police officers rather than their direct actions.

Karnan, too, deals with a marginalised community, their plight and fight for a bus stop in their village, Podiyankulam. We see how the community faces oppression from all sides and the system in place makes sure that there’s no change in the status quo. Their fight for equality is countered by the retaliation of the police force and things turn bloody.

Inspired by real-life incidents, the movies have the same themes—oppression by caste, police brutality, and systemic injustice. Also, both the movies, surprisingly, seem to have happy endings (sort of—one can argue the loss is more than the gain).

Though the movies by TJ Gnanavel and Mari Selvaraj bear resemblance in the subject matter, the approach and treatment of it significantly vary. The difference lies even in the way the tales are narrated. Jai Bhim is simple and neat while Karnan is heavy with layers of meaningful symbolisms and metaphors. 

Watch: Trailer of Jai Bhim

Community and the Individual

Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan is primarily about the community to which the titular character belongs (the community is not denoted by its caste name as Mari Selvaraj firmly believes that one shouldn’t propagate what one’s fighting against). Though Karnan, played by Dhanush, is the main protagonist, the movie’s focus doesn’t waver from the community—its customs, practices, beliefs, and members. We know and grow to love Manjanathi’s Purushan (husband) Yema Raja, cherish his bond with the one he fondly calls Mathini, worry about Poyilal’s education, empathise with Padmini (Karnan’s sister), feel Draupadi’s love, disapprove of Vadamalaiyan’s ways and respect Duryodhanan’s leadership. Even during the times of direct encounters with the police, it’s the community that is seen at the forefront and its response to it. The fight for justice and dignity is shown to be a collective effort and not an individual pursuit. When Karnan returns to the village, it’s not heroic music that welcomes him but the oppari sung by the community for those it has lost due to police violence. 

On the other hand, the screenplay of Jai Bhim seems conflicted between the Irular community and the individual Chandru and chooses a clumsy middle ground. Even though the chosen genre is “courtroom drama”, the movie feels it necessary (and quite rightly so) to document the lives of the people of the Irular community; it doesn’t hesitate in doing so. What is upsetting is that it doesn’t stick to it throughout. We stop seeing the community onscreen once Chandru is approached and the court trial begins. We do not get to see the community’s response to the cruel tragedy that has struck them or how they cope with it. By the way the events are set in the movie, it feels as though the lives of people of the Irular community are shown just so that the character Chandru can get a case (this could be because of the genre, but why choose this genre?).

There are about two significant scenes where we see the community after the tragedy—one where the victims narrate incidents of police violence to Inspector Perumalsamy (Prakash Raj) and another where the community mourns for Rajakannu’s death. Again these scenes serve to show how Chandru is deeply affected by these and how he becomes more determined in his pursuit of justice. It is the Irular community’s victimisation that becomes central to the screenplay and the character Chandru being their ally. It should be noted that the movie is careful and doesn’t give in too much to the saviour complex but it cannot be denied that ultimately, the movie is in fact about the “saviour”; people are even calling it Justice Chandru’s biopic.

This is in sharp contrast to Karnan. At the end of the movie, Karnan’s sister narrates how the village finally got a minibus in a letter to Karnan in just five lines “Yaaro yaaro vandhanga, enna ennamo pesnanga, needhi kettu engala enga engayo kooti ponanga. Aprm thideernu vandhu roadu pottanga. Ippo minibus kuda vitrukanga” (Some strangers came to our village. They spoke to us about many things. They took us to several places to demand justice. And then suddenly one day, they laid the road and now a mini-bus runs). This scene barely takes half a minute in the movie while the better part of Jai Bhim deals with “Yaaro vandhanga, needhi kettu engayo kooti ponanga”.

The Saviour

Karnan doesn’t follow the “Outside Saviour” narrative and even goes to the extent of problematising it. When we see “K. Kannapiran IPS'' on a name board, due to the tales fed to us about God Kannan/Krishnan being a saviour, the protector of the Pandavas, and the restorer of Dharma in Hindu mythology, we expect a good police officer to show up and help the people of Podiyankulam. But the character Kannapiran turns out to be an evil incarnate and unleashes hell upon the people as it is the casteist dharma that he strives to uphold. Very different from Jai Bhim’s Perumalsamy, coincidentally both officers being the namesakes of Vishnu’s avatars.

Watch: Song from Karnan

The character who is instrumental in bringing about the change is Karnan who belongs to the same community. He is one among the community and cannot be separated from it. He repeatedly asks his people to lose their fear and fight for their rights as he believes that one has to fight oppression and not merely escape it.

Jai Bhim seems to be the answer to the Irular community’s cry often heard in the film “Engaluku naadhi illaya?” (Is there no one for us?). If Chandru is not the “saviour”, it is then the legal system. Staying true to the spirit of its title, the movie conveys how the legal system is the strongest weapon to achieve justice for the marginalised. This brings us to the most important difference which sets Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan and T J Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim apart—the way the system is perceived.

The System

 The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house - Audre Lorde

Jai Bhim firmly holds its unflinching belief in the system and how when used by the right people, it can provide justice to the downtrodden, Advocate Chandru and Police Officer Perumalsamy being the case in point.

Karnan’s case is different as it is shown that the many letters written to the government in request for a bus stop and the various legal steps taken, to be in vain. The people are forced to find alternatives as turning to the system proves to be a failure. Karnan literally turns his back against the State when he rejects the offer to join the army and chooses to return to his people. It is the system that is seen as the true enemy and not even the dominant caste people from the neighbouring village of Melur. Even when Karnan qualifies for one of the physical tests to join the army, his success is not celebrated as the focus is on the system that thrives and perpetuates inequality. Karnan’s righteous anger and resistance in many places are considered “unlawful” in the eyes of the State and when he takes on Kannapiran, a man of the system, he gets (un)lawfully punished for it.

This distrust in the system is not particular to this movie. In Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, Kaala and his son, though similar in their intentions and goals, differ in their ways of achieving them. Kaala’s son believes in the system and works within its constraints to achieve equality. But Kaala doesn’t hesitate to stomp on any system that reeks of injustice and inequality. And the movie ends with Kaala’s son realising the truths about the system and changing his ways to follow in the footsteps of his father.

It is not that Jai Bhim doesn’t acknowledge other ways of fighting for justice—Chandru actively participates in protests and in one of his powerful dialogues, he even says that law is just a weapon for him to fight for justice and he won’t hesitate to come to the streets if the need arises—but working within the system is shown to be the most effective. The scene that makes this apparent is when Chandru jumps over the barricade and leaves the protest midway for a case. The protest seems to be an inconvenience to the court proceedings which would fetch fruitful results, reiterating the effectiveness of the system. In the context given, the scene makes sense but Chandru is not seen returning to the protest after the case. He still believes in the master’s tools.

Many found the scenes of police torture extreme and a little unbelievable, but what I found unbelievable was the smooth proceeding of the case. The two judges presiding over the case were shockingly very nice people. Not sure whether they were anti-caste, but very nice people indeed. According to the interviews given by Justice Chandru, the judges who heard the case were indeed empathetic, but I kept thinking what if someone like the infamous Judge Hoffman from The Trial of Chicago 7 had been in charge. Despite the evidence submitted and the truth proved, would the judgement have been the same? Would the police officers responsible for the murder be punished? The film holds the message that good people in the system are the key to justice. Advocate Chandru and Inspector Perumalsamy are the model figures projected.

As an aside,  Inspector Perumalsamy is considered to be one of the “good ones”. But this character too is problematic because violence seems to be his first resort in solving problems. His “good” intentions cannot be a valid excuse for his unlawful violence especially not when he holds immense power and authority and the State has sanctioned his license to carry lathis and guns.

Jai Bhim believes in the superiority of the system and places overwhelming faith in it. It seems to hold the idea that if at all a system falters, it is only due to the corrupt people and the onus is not placed on the system which has failed to keep the bad people in check. It seems blind to the inherent faults of the system. It shows police brutality at its extreme but fails to advocate for systemic ways to prevent it or even keep it in check. It talks about caste oppression but fails to acknowledge how the system institutionalises caste discrimination. If not radical, even incremental reforms to the system are not suggested to ensure its effectiveness. It is surprising that such an intelligent movie has overlooked this.

In an interview that came in The News Minute, Professor Kalyani, social activist and a longtime associate of Justice Chandru talks about another case from the Irular community—Athiyur Vijaya case. Vijaya, a 17-year-old girl, was raped by six policemen in 1993. After a legal battle that lasted for 13 years, the policemen were sentenced to life imprisonment only to be released on bail three months later and acquitted by the High Court in another two years.

How can anyone not be disillusioned by the justice system after reading about this? And this is not the only case—we all know too many to count or list. The case taken by Jai Bhim seems to be one of a kind where the victim actually gets justice. Justice was not instant though. It took 13 long years for Rajakannu and Parvathi’s case to completely end and for justice to be fully restored. If the movie had chosen to emphasise the delayed justice, the climax would not have a little Alli but an adult woman sitting across Chandru cross-legged and reading the newspaper.

One can even question if it was really “justice” that Parvathi Ammal got? The “patta” that she was given as compensation apparently turned out to be useless as the land was flood-prone and uninhabitable. She even wanted to give it back, she says in an interview. She doesn’t have a home/place which she can call her own, a reality very different from that of Sengeni who builds a cement house fulfilling her dead husband’s wish. The “justice” procured did not improve the standard of life for Parvathi Ammal or her children or her community. Neither did the judgement pave way for any change at a systemic level.

The movie paints a rosy picture of the legal system where acquiring justice is certain and assured and the process is simple and straight-forward. This is far from reality as the process is prolonged and difficult as the current system more often than not fails to accommodate the very people Ambedkar intended it to serve. We all at some point would have witnessed how a system works—it works to save itself, and the people in it work to save one another.

The movie, staying true to the spirit of its title, portrays an Ambedkarite way of fighting for justice by using the power of the law and constitution. It cannot be denied that the law provides recourse to the poor and marginalised but the movie places high hopes on the present system and holds it as ideal and effective and doesn’t highlight the systemic faults and practical difficulties. This discourages, delays, and prevents the need to reform the system or even look for other alternative ways of attaining justice—look for tools other than the master’s.

This article is not written with the intention of cancelling Jai Bhim. It is not often that art acknowledges and fulfills its social responsibility. Jai Bhim does it powerfully and no one can find fault with its good intentions. Especially not when it has been successful in creating awareness and has made a positive social effect in the society. This critique must be read in line with Periyar and Marx’s ideologies, as both were skeptical about the system and advocated for radical changes aimed at transforming society. TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, Mari Selvaraj and Pa. Ranjith’s films all fall on the same side as they have the same intention—just like Kaala and his son. 

Aazhi is currently a research scholar in the Department of English at Stella Maris College, Chennai.

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