Contrary to the impression that many might carry, Jai Bhim, the Tamil-language legal drama starring Suriya and Lijomol Jose in the lead, is not merely about police brutality or even about the sorry state of the tribals, both of which are undoubtedly central to the plot, but it is, in large measure, also about the general oppression of the underprivileged; the widespread prejudice people carry against those unlike them; the abuse of unbridled power; and the need for state accountability to be ensured by the rule of law and public denunciation of state apathy to the plight of the citizens most in need of state assistance.
The monied and influential can work (mostly skew) the system to their advantage, which is another problem to be addressed, but the efficacy of a welfare state is best measured by the preparedness and efficiency of its key institutions to quickly respond to the needs of those who do not have the means and weight to pull the right levers, which is what the movie is fundamentally about. And since it’s based on a real-life incident, which it manages to, by and large, portray accurately, focusing on the particular incident at the expense of the larger picture would be nothing short of missing the forest for the trees.
The plot and story of Jai Bhim revolve around the torture and murder of Rajakannu, in police custody and the struggle of his wife Sengenni to get justice for her husband with the help of a relentless activist lawyer, Chandru, in the backdrop of the atrocities against the tribals in the Tamil Nadu of the 1990s, which is not to say that the condition or the struggle of the tribals in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere has dramatically improved though there has been some betterment over the years.
The opening scene of the film shows policemen standing at the prison gates eyeing the newly released inmates — like they were water tankers in a drought-struck area — to “solve” the pending cases by implicating these poor and defenceless people, who might have served time for a similar false implication earlier. That sets the tone of the film.
Rajakannu, a labourer belonging to the Irular tribe (a Scheduled Tribe of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu), is arrested under the suspicion of having stolen valuable jewellery from the house of a wealthy and well-connected sarpanch, who exercises his influence in the higher echelons of the police to pressure the investigation officer, Sub-Inspector (SI) Gurumurthy, into acting urgently and also recklessly to solve the case and recover the stolen jewellery. Gurumurthy resorts to extreme violence against Rajakannu and his family, resulting in Rajakannu’s death.
Gurumurthy, it is very important to remember, is not motivated by hatred for any community or people, and does not try to falsely implicate Rajakannu in the matter. He genuinely believes, based on the suspicions raised by the complainant sarpanch and his wife, that Rajakannu has indeed committed the crime. To Gurmurthy, Rajakannu is his lead suspect in the case and he considers it his job to first find the suspect and then force the recovery of the stolen items from him. It is only under the ever-increasing pressure from his superiors and the sarpanch that he resorts to extreme torture to know Rajakannu’s whereabouts. And when Rajakannu is found, he tortures him to make the recovery and elicit a confession to solve the case and ends up killing Rajakannu in a fit of anger and frustration.
So the movie is set in the background of innocent tribals being falsely implicated by the police, which issue the protagonist lawyer, Chandru, raises, takes to the court and wins, but Rajakannu’s case is not such a case, to start with. True, the accusations against him are actually false and so the case based on such accusations would also be false, but to knowingly implicate someone in a false case is not the same as trying to obtain a confession from a suspect. The former requires fabrication of evidence, the latter the use of violence or unlawful allurement, and both are wrong, illegal and punishable, but differently. And in the context of the movie, that’s a significant distinction because it changes the moral complexion of Gurumurthy’s character. Being cunning and vile is different from being cruel and violent, which is how the rapist villains of Aaj Ki Awaaz (1984) and Zakhmi Aurat (1988) are differently villainous than Mogambo of Mr. India (1987) and Shaakaal of Shaan (1980).
Gurumurthy is cruel and angry and thinks that custodial torture is a perfectly legitimate tool of investigation, which is not materially different from the views of Inspector General (IG) Perumalsamy, who sees torture and violence as a means to justice (he narrates a personal incident of such “finger-crushing” justice-delivery), and he is one of the good guys. Since the tribals are poor and wield no political or financial influence, they make an easy target and can be safely subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment with no fear of consequences.
Such institutionalized cruelty ties up with the discriminatory and sub-human treatment generally meted out to the powerless tribals and snowballs into widespread discontent and resentment against the “system”, giving rise to and constantly feeding into the regional militancy, the area of which keeps expanding and shrinking periodically, corresponding to the extent of discontent.
Gurumurthy would probably treat any powerless suspect exactly the same way, but when it’s a tribal, the picture changes. The failure of the rule of law with no state accountability and the mistreatment and oppression of the tribals are two connected but distinct problems demanding equally urgent redress. And while Jai Bhim doesn’t seem to confuse or mix the two, the viewers might. The movie neatly lays down the background of tribal oppression before foregrounding Rajakannu’s blood-soaked tale, but the viewers might see the systemic flaws as the villainy of an individual, and be content with the outcome of the individual case of Rajakannu rather than thinking of neutralizing its breeding ground.
In Jai Bhim, we see the real-life story of an activist lawyer standing up against the oppression of the tribals and seeking justice for them repeatedly, and we also see the system respond eventually with the guilty policemen prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law. So the rule of law prevails in the end. But that was in the 1990s. Between August 2018 and October 2020, sixteen (16) people were arrested in the Bhima Koregaon Case on the suspicion of being Maoist sympathizers. The arrestees — also referred to as BK16 collectively — included eminent professors, writers, teachers, human rights activists, scholars, lawyers and a now-deceased priest.
What they have in common is that, like Chandru, the real-life activist lawyer of Jai Bhim, they have been raising the concerns of the tribals in their own way and within their own domains. But, yes, regardless of the goodness of the cause, if one supports violence and militancy, one should be held legally answerable for it. However, if independent forensic analyses are anything to go by, there is a depressingly high probability that the evidence against BK16 was remotely planted by infiltrating their computers. So back in the 1990s, the system was responding to the critics and reformists and was course-correcting; now, it seems to be aggressively fighting them by suppressing dissent and resisting change to maintain and defend the status quo. Back then, the falsely implicated were the tribals; now, they are the defenders of the tribals’ rights themselves. Yes, we have indeed come a long way since the 1990s. But in the wrong direction.
Jai Bhim, for its part, raises hope, which is because the outcome of that fight was largely hopeful with the guilty policemen convicted and sentenced for murder. But it was by the Fast Track Court No. 3 of the Additional District and Sessions Judge, Vrindhachalam (S.C.No.183 of 1995) and not by the High Court, as shown in the film. The decision was maintained by the Madras High Court in appeal (Criminal Appeal Nos.735 & 738 of 2004 and 668 of 2005). Although High Courts are competent courts to hold any trial, criminal or civil, they don’t do it in the normal course, especially in criminal cases, to preserve the litigants’ right to appeal to them against the decisions of the Sessions Courts.
And, please, It’s Madras High Court, not “Chennai High Court”! To get the name of the concerned High Court wrong in a legal drama based on an actual case is a cinematic sacrilege beyond redemption. “The least you could do is get the name of the High Court right!” The ace chef of Cheeni Kum (2007) would have thundered in outrage, if he were a lawyer.