Jai Bhim review: Suriya’s courtroom drama is disturbing, well-enacted

As a courtroom drama and investigative thriller, based on real events, ‘Jai Bhim’ is head and shoulders above the average fare.
Suriya as a lawyer in the poster of Jai Bhim
Suriya as a lawyer in the poster of Jai Bhim
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Films glorifying police violence, with the hero playing a law officer and crusader for justice, have often turned into blockbusters. Suriya himself has starred in quite a few of these. But what does police violence look like in real life? How does a system that invests inordinate power in law enforcement function in a country with deep inequities?

TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, based on real events, is among the few films that have delved into this frightening, bleak realm (Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai and Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan are two others that immediately come to mind). Set in 1995, Jai Bhim revolves around the arrest of three Irular (a Scheduled Tribe) men in a theft case. The police, under pressure to solve pending cases, foist false cases on people from marginalised sections, knowing very well that they do not have the connections or money power to save themselves from the justice system. Rajakannu (played by the wonderful Manikandan), Mosakutty and Irutappan fall into one such trap, setting off a series of horrific events that don’t even offer the viewer the comfort of believing it to be fiction.

When Jai Bhim was announced with Suriya in the lead, I wondered if this would be a typical ‘saviour’ narrative where the hero makes the battle all about himself, relegating the victims and survivors to a position of insignificance. But Gnanavel builds up Rajakannu’s world brick by brick — before it comes crashing down. Manikandan makes every moment count, from his endearing smile to his tortured screams. Lijomol Jose plays Senganni, Rajakannu’s wife, who refuses to back down from procuring justice for her husband. It is her face that registers the crucial developments in the plot, and Lijomol is exceptional in the role.

Suriya as lawyer Chandru (who is known to have taken anti-caste and pro-justice stances in his long career as lawyer and judge) is understated; there are no bombastic dialogues that have come to define courtroom dramas in Tamil cinema. The arguments made before the judges sound realistic and to the point, a refreshing departure from the lengthy, exaggerated monologues that we’re used to seeing on screen. MS Bhaskar’s small role as a senior lawyer brings some chuckles in an otherwise dark story. Prakash Raj as IG Perumalswamy and Rajisha Vijayan as teacher Mythra also turn in good performances, as do the actors who play the brutal policemen.

The screenplay goes back and forth in time but is always cogent, serving to build up suspense without overdoing it. It’s also commendable that it steers clear of unnecessary romance tracks and punch dialogues. The songs, too, don’t disrupt the flow and appear organically. Perumalswamy slapping a Marwari moneylender for speaking in Hindi, however, comes off as a cheap tactic to get some claps from the audience. The battle against Hindi imposition is legitimate and must continue to be fought, but endorsing violence against Hindi speakers is a dangerous and unfair game.

Watch: Trailer of Jai Bhim

As a courtroom drama and investigative thriller, Jai Bhim is head and shoulders above the average fare. I was, however, conflicted about the extensive scenes depicting custodial violence. On the one hand, it is an undeniable truth that such incidents happen in real life. On the other hand, it becomes imperative to ask if recreating such violence in grotesque detail amounts to desensitising the audience at some level. There is a growing body of criticism against such depictions revolving around oppressed identities — must the viewer witness extreme acts of cruelty meted out to them in order to develop their empathy? What happens when such extreme acts are repeated over and over again on screen whenever characters from marginalised groups appear? Does it then dilute our ability to feel for the other; extend our tolerance for what is permissible?

But when a film is based on an incident of real life custodial violence, how can the camera not show it? Should such stories not be told then? Or can the camera create an impact in the viewer by suggesting what’s happening without documenting it in graphic detail? These are questions that filmmakers must think about when handling such sensitive subjects. It’s also unclear if consent was obtained from the real life family on whose story the film is based. If not, these painful memories magnified on the screen would amount to re-traumatising the survivors. Let’s not forget that though Bandit Queen had a sympathetic portrayal of Phoolan Devi and won critical acclaim, the latter was angered by how the film portrayed the real life gangrape, and even took the makers to court for showing the incident without her consent.

The ending, with the Irular people folding their hands in gratitude, borders on the ‘saviour’ narrative but is offset by the final scene that once again reminds us of Ambedkar’s insistence on education as the means to emancipation. It helps that the plot does not entirely hinge on Chandru, the individual, but looks at how he uses the law to help those who need it the most. It also places him within the context of larger pro-people, pro-justice movements (Ambedkar, Periyar and Karl Marx adorn his walls and the camera positions him below them, as a follower), rather than project him as a one-man army.

Jai Bhim is a disturbing film, raising many questions about the checks and balances in place in law enforcement and the justice system. Perhaps something to think about before the public cheers encounter killings as police bravery the next time it happens.

The film will stream on Amazon Prime Video from November 2.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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