The misplaced protagonist in Jai Bhim
Lijomol Jose as Sengani shines through in a star-driven slyly take on the class divide, justice and politics.
It doesn’t happen very often when a film tackles issues that are plaguing our society in a very unapologetic manner that it lays bare all its cards in the very first scene and what you know, it’s just the start.
The nearly three-hour film begins with the headcount of prisoners leaving that day, being asked which caste they belong to and police separate the ones of — Koravar, Ottar and Irular tribes — possibly to be charged with some other made-up cases, while others are let go of.
Then and there the director lets you know, what we are in for even though it was just the tip of the iceberg.
The film with a genius title is based on the true incident that took place in 1993. Falsely accused in a theft case, a man named Rajankannu of the Irular tribe was tortured to death in custody and his wife came to the lawyer for help. It ended up being a landmark case in the history of Tamil Nadu state as it was habeas corpus heard in the High Court.
In an era where education about BLM (Black Lives Matter) is becoming as important as breathing and eating and in the era of ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards), Jai Bhim is a pivotal cog in the wheel of today’s reality.
Since it’s inspired by a true incident, the centre figure is taken by the former advocate and justice K Chandru, who was very active in student politics and an important member of the Left movement.
Naturally, Suriya as Chandru gets the bulk of screen time and is the saviour for Sengeni (Lijomol Jose), who gives her everything to get the truth out.
Chandru in Jai Bhim is introduced with a sequence where he is leading a protest at a police station against police brutality and asking for the arrest of one of the cops and hence justice. Chandru is presented as a hero, and from the first scene you know he will win the case and he will get the job done, the only question was how.
The subject here was the cause and the pregnant tribal woman’s fight, courage but it slowly turns into a fight of that woman led by the Good Samaritan.
When he gets a breakthrough, the background score lets us know, he is a big deal. The judges, the prosecutor, the victim everyone seems to be indebted to him from some past deed.
This was one of the big reasons why I had reservations with movies such as Pink and Article 15 wherein the former the deep baritone and towering figure of Amitabh Bachchan enters and the story becomes about him fighting the case and not the case and the latter where it is about the high-class police officer and not the three dead Dalit girls (saviour complex).
Yes, the star, the saviour is required to make the audience believe that he can do it, he is trustworthy if that person is at the helm, he will be able to get to the root of the cause and deliver justice but it almost feels like hero worship here.
The camera angles, the score takes you away from the gravity of the situation as 28 minutes before his entry, Tha Se Gnanavel is successful in showing how tribal communities are exploited and how the rich caste member treat them as untouchables.
The film is about the systematic and normalised oppression against the unprivileged. The framing, the blaming and the accusation and the brutality in custody that follows in the grab of interrogation. Jai Bhim does not just tell you how common it is, it also tells you how deep it runs and so many hierarchies it goes through without any objection.
It was easy for the minister to make a scapegoat of Rajakannu (K Manikandan), who visited his house a few days ago to catch a snake. The senior police officer is under immense pressure from the minister and it just flows through the ranks and the ones handling the case go on outright hooliganism.
The one suffering from all this is Rajakannu and his wife, with one child and another on the way. Denied basic human rights and identity, Sengeni’s dream of living in a house made of bricks, not the ones with thatched rooftops, who can’t stand an overnight rain.
The odds are stacked against her in every way and form. She is alone as Rajakannu went outstation to earn a living when the accusation is made. She pleads, yells, gets tortured till the search for her husband comes to an end.
The screenplay naturally makes you root for her and could/should have been the ideal protagonist but it wasn’t to be. It is as emotional a performance as it is physical. She roams around with her daughter Alli and the unborn child, asking for help, to let her know what is happening.
It is a gut-wrenching act because you are witness to the absolute disturbing torture which her husband, Rajakannu’s nephew and sister are going through and she is helpless. She is howling, crying and almost dies inside seeing her husband getting dragged into the station and the inhumane treatment.
Like Mythra (Vijayan), the lawyer’s role should have been restricted to helping in her rebirth, the catalyst to help her dream and believe that the monsters can be put to their place. However, the latter becomes the driving force, which is unfortunate…
Sengeni has a beautiful character arc as the story progresses, the tribal character has a supposed “mass scene” where the policemen are pleading her to sit in the jeep and not create a scene as the orders are from higher authority. She has started believing, she knows, now the ball is in her court. It’s a magnificent scene and equally well-performed.
She is vulnerable yet brave because she knows if she gives up, the atrocities are only going to line up furthermore. The anger, the pain are felt and Lijomol embodies all of that.
Sengani is the protagonist of this story, the cause and the film should have had as ultimately it is he, who wins it for her and not her win, as it should have been.
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