Sunday, May 29, 2022

Suriya's 'Jai Bhim' Shows Why We Need Ambedkar's Ideas To Reform The Justice System

What will we do when the very structure turns against its own and we are left instrumentally handicapped? This is the question posed by Tamil film 'Jai Bhim' with goosebump-enducing sequences.

Suriya's 'Jai Bhim' Shows Why We Need Ambedkar's Ideas To Reform The Justice System
Actor Suriya and Justice K. Chandru Twitter

The Chunduru massacre in Andhra Pardesh, the Kambalapalli incident in Karnataka, the Mirchpur killings in Haryana – the names don't always ring a bell for everyone. Yet, all these are a testimony to the cruelty and frequency of caste-based violence, and the apathetic attitude of the state and judiciary towards this violence since independence. One such incident, however, has been taken up by TJ Gnanavel, to be turned into the movie currently getting widespread attention -- 'Jai Bhim.'

In the conscientious, meticulously structured 'Jai Bhim,' horrors begin from the very first scene, in which a police officer is seen segregating suspects based on their caste identity. “Nee endha aals (which people are you),” he asks, subtly implying that different treatment will be meted out to the dominant castes and to the Dalits and tribals. The latter soon become a soft target, slapped with false charges, poached, and preyed upon by cops in order to close pending cases.

That first scene sets the tone for the rest of the 164 minutes. Gnanavel wastes no time in trying to tone down the savagery of caste-class relations. There is a scene in which a member from the dominant caste can be heard saying “Unga kudusai-ya kollutha evalavu neram aagum (how long do you think it’ll take for us to set your house on fire)”. Gnanavel also manages to objectively capture the manner in which Dalits and tribals are exploited for their labour. Inspired by real-life events that took place with the Irula tribe in Tamil Nadu, this movie proves to be a remarkable piece of story-telling, unwaveringly depicting the discrimination and bias experienced by the marginalised communities within the legal system with heart-wrenching honesty.

As citizens, we put our faith in the agencies of the state to maintain and deliver law, order, and justice. But what will we do when the very structure turns against its own and we are left instrumentally handicapped? This is the question the film poses, with goosebump-enducing sequences. The film focuses on the lives of Senggeni and Rajakannu, who were tortured, abused, and indicted for a crime they did not commit, upending their lives. When a case of theft is lodged by the panchayat head, the police come under pressure to find the culprit quick. Rajakannu, who had been called to the house the day before to catch a snake, becomes the immediate, easy suspect. This film also brings attention to the Plight of DE notified tribes which is rarely visible in mainstream media and to the majority of the population, giving a glimpse of their food habits, livelihood patterns, habitat, customs, and rituals. Along with this, the film also showcases their position in the society with nuance, authenticity, and a sense of respect. The authenticity comes from the efforts the director made with the Tribal Protection Society to understand the community.

The lead actor in the movie, Surya, plays Ambedkar-inspired Justice Chandru. The Irular tribe in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu endured police brutality in 1995. Justice Chandru filed a habeas corpus and put up a legal fight for them. The Irula tribe were part of the denotified tribe (DNT), condemned as habitual offenders. Later, they were given the Scheduled Tribe status, but that did not make them free from consistent victimisation. They continued to be the first suspects for any crimes committed in the area, and the majority of the members were viewed as potential offenders, with false cases registered against them on a daily basis. Even today, many in the community don't have access to ration cards, land, or voting rights, and live as nameless individuals struggling to obtain even their caste certificates. They still earn a living working as snake- and rat-catchers and honey collectors, in lands owned by upper castes.

It would be wrong to blindly bank on this aspect and hail the film as one true beacon of hope (this needs to be established)The conclusion of the film, showing a young girl picking up a newspaper with confidence, is a true reflective of Ambedkar's idea of empowerment of Dalits and Tribals. As citizens, every individual should enjoy equal rights, something categorically reflected in Ambedkar's philosophy. "The consciousness of social security", Ambedkar argues "comes to a man when he feels that he is getting his basic rights".


The intention of the filmmakers to come up with a plot that has relevance and a message for its audiences is quite clear. Actor Surya in his previous works has played a part of the establishment and showed us the conventional glorifying image of the same. In this film, however, he questions the fabric of the establishments, the explicit atrocity organised and pursued by the police and the upper caste men, all the while evoking Ambedkar’s ideas on law and order. Lijomol Jose’s rendition of Sengani encapsulates her commitment towards her craft. One will be hooked with the character till the end. Her depiction of inhibitions, horrors, and frustration, lined with aggression for all the wrongs done to her, leaves one with nothing but empathy and love for the character.

What needs to change

The film calls attention to the urgency of reviewing the justice mechanism in the country. The Annual Confidential Report (ACR) for IAS and IPS officers assess their conduct, character, and performances. However, the lack of any surveillance mechanism to monitor the lower-rank inspectors and constable renders them unaccountable. The Supreme Court has issued several guidelines about judicial custody during the pre-trial process, but not much awareness is present about the same. The need to introduce a sense of inclusiveness among the professionals, and provisions to make them sensitive towards members of different communities, will allow for a change and improve these conditions of hostility.

In conclusion, the rawness and natural portrayal of human emotions in the movie, the usage of animals, and the symbolism behind them, force one to take a step back and process their surroundings. Jai Bhim is an engaging film that combines elements of both courtroom drama and investigation thriller in an intelligent manner. At a time when people are blindly following trends and engaged in hero worship, the film with its unconditional rendition of violence and gut-wrenching sequences will provide viewers with credible substance and a cinematic experience that they will carry along for a long time

Dr Aditi Narayani Paswan is an Assistant Professor at Maitreyi College, University of Delhi and founder of DAPSA (Dalit Adivasi Professor Scholar Association). Views are personal.