THE HARDENED CORE OF PROPAGANDA in Jai Bhim unravels itself in a short monologue mouthed by the protagonist and chief propagandist, Chandru one hour into the movie:
Jai Bhim is Tamil cinema’s equivalent of the 2006 Hindi commercial movie of Communist propaganda, Rang de Basanti. The underlying premise of both movies is the same: the Indian state is an illegitimate entity that must be fought continuously against until a paradise of Communist equality replaces it. While Rang de Basanti uses the Communist trope rather subtly, Jai Bhim brazenly celebrates not only Communism but Communist parties, complete with flags, paraphernalia, rhetoric and leaders.
The protagonist, a lawyer, played by actor Suriya Sivakumar is an aggregated embodiment of the worst of Communism and the offshoots the genocidal ideology has birthed. The walls of his ramshackle home office are proudly plastered with pictures of his heroes: Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar. And lest we forget, the film’s director Tha.Se. Gnanavel constantly reminds us of them by repeatedly focusing the camera on them.
But the real ideological core and framework of Jai Bhim is revealed in the lyrics of the “hero introduction song” meant to establish Suriya’s character, which leave no room for doubt. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
Take the power in your hand; reclaim the power, demand the power;
Tathagatha, bring us righteousness; bring forth change
If we are not united, how can there be change?
Dare to take the power in your hand; you have no choice but that;
Keep demanding till you get;
Who are you to order me around?
Take the power in your hand;
The line on Tathagatha or Buddha appears as a refrain throughout the song and we’re also treated to snippets of Dr. Ambedkar’s speech on the eradication of untouchability. In other words, this is a slight variant of the familiar but toxic discourse pushed by our Communists which places Buddha, Ashoka, Basavanna, Akbar, Ambedkar and Periyar on the same pedestal. And our protagonist lawyer is a devout cult-worshipper.
It appears that Suriya Sivakumar has found his career-saviour in Che Guevara ever since his upbeat stardom suddenly nosedived about a decade ago. He hit pay dirt with his previous film, Soorarai Pottru in which he donned the bearded Che Guevara look and played the role of the ubiquitous low-caste underdog who wages a multipronged battle: against the evil bureaucracy and the corrupt political system, against ruthless North Indian capitalists and for good measure, blasts Brahmins. The movie also has a character Chaitanya, nicknamed “Che.”
While Jai Bhim is ostensibly based on a real-life incident of police brutality, systemic corruption and harassment of an Irular tribal family in 1993, its screen adaptation takes extraordinary liberties with the truth. This video rips apart all those liberties and the substantial economies with the truth the film takes.
Commercial films themed on caste have been a staple diet for decades but there is marked difference between such movies made till the 1980s and over the last decade or so: in the earlier era, they typically ended with a message of reconciliation and harmony and generally kept politics far away. The current crop of such movies, especially in Tamil cinema, are brazenly political with the Indian state as the central villain of the piece.
Indeed, Jai Bhim is a rather odd title for a film that wants to “do” justice to the Irular tribe. The title absolutely has no logical or semantic connection with the movie’s story because it is the familiar Dalit slogan Jai Bhim, derived out of respect for Bhimrao Ambedkar. But as the movie uncurtains the cynical politics that drives it, the connection instantly becomes clear.
If there is a human form of self-assured self-righteousness, it is Suriya’s character in the movie. This human-rights justice-crusader is without a single grey shade in his character. We are shown that the notion of equality and human rights as defined by Communist theory consumes him, in fact it underscores his very life. Injustice gives him sleepless nights. All solutions are to be found in the Holy Books written by his heroes, who he selectively quotes to suit the occasion. In one scene, he questions why Ambedkar is not mentioned in the same league of great leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. Which is a fair point. Ambedkar was by all standards better than these two worthies. Elsewhere, he declares his Periyarite motto of duplicity: no one is a God here, and there is no need for garlands.
The opening scene of Jai Bhim sets the tone for its sick politics. A jail official takes a caste-based roll call of prisoners who are released. Depending on the relative “power” of the caste, the prisoners are set free. The powerless castes—tribals in this case—are taken aside and cops vie with one another to foist false cases on them so that they can meet their “targets.”
This sets the ideal backdrop for Suriya’s heroics in court resulting in a perfectly pre-scripted legal victory. The falsely implicated tribals get justice and the court acidly slaps the police, thereby establishing another fundamental premise of Jai Bhim: a relentless battle against the police. We’ll examine this point in some detail later in this essay. This is the subliminal message that this scene delivers to the viewers: Suriya, the fiery, self-assured legal Che Guevara from Chennai is the perfect and natural choice to represent the Irular tribe, much later in the movie.
That’s when the aforementioned “hero introduction” song begins and we’re shown various facets of Suriya’s crusades. The song is also the clearest evidence of his true filial, ideological bond depicting his crusading zeal in action: fighting for the rights of factory workers (these are specifically workers of Aavin, the Tamil Nadu Government’s milk production business, which came under fire during Jayalalithaa’s regime), displaced people from the lower strata … his preparation for each such case includes printing out and distributing pamphlets in public places: pasting them on walls of buildings and doing home delivery. All classic techniques perfected by our Communists and the goons of Periyar in his early days.
The point here is not the purity of Suriya’s heart or the legitimacy of his crusade but its constant and sole target: the Indian state. Thus, right off the bat, Jai Bhim makes a clear distinction between black and white: the Indian State is black and the tribals, poor people and workers are white. But the Indian State is a specific shade of black, signified by the so-called upper castes who not only control it but in fact have been running it for more than two thousand years: this is how Jai Bhim contextualises Ambedkar’s speech about eradicating untouchability. What is not shown is the full context of Ambedkar’s speech and his crusade against untouchability.
This is a point that merits some amount of detail.
Ever since Jai Bhim was released, a major criticism levelled against it happens to be its focused targeting of the Vanniyar community by using the character of the corrupt and brutal cop named Gurumurthy to tarnish it. In real life, this barbarian was a cop named Antony Swami, a converted Christian.
This sick deception even if it was intentional, is rather incidental in the larger context of the movie. That context is not terribly original but an updated version of the British ruse to divide the Hindu society, isolate each component and then destroy the Sanatana forest tree by tree. Thus, by concentrating on the injustice meted out to one family of the Irular tribe, Jai Bhim attempts to do three things:
1. To tell the audience that the Irulars are merely a tribe although they follow Hindu customs.
2. Other members who follow Hindu customs have continually oppressed them: this again, is the Government controlled by powerful castes.
3. The only salvation for Irulars (and other such tribes) to escape this oppression is education. The path to this salvation is provided by the likes of Suriya and the Communist parties.
Clearly, Jai Bhim attempts to foment caste divisiveness in the garb of delivering justice to tribals. From one perspective, the entire movie is a litany of casteist innuendos and insults.
Gnanavel, the director, selects a Brahmin lawyer for target practice although he does not explicitly mention the lawyer’s caste. He is shown as a Vibhuti-smeared loser and opportunist who constantly invokes the mantra, Sivaya Namah, and is the fixed object for Suriya’s snides against him. He is also shown to have a tacit and silent bond of understanding with the Advocate General Ram Mohan, a fellow-Brahmin. This is unsubtly established in the scene where both of them greet each other with Namaskaram, instead of Vanakkam.
In another scene, the Advocate General openly yells at the cops: “You allowed a tribal woman to even enter the high court! Why are you even cops?” And yet again reprimands them, “You guys don’t even know how to commit a crime properly. Who gave you the uniform?”
And so it goes on, scene after scene, trying hard to prove that aforementioned Communist trope: the Indian state is an illegitimate entity.
Perhaps one of the most revealing scenes in Jai Bhim is Suriya’s monologue in court:
The politics underlying this appalling scene is truly breathtaking for its all-encompassing cluelessness and the torture it inflicts on history and literature.
There’s another side to the same “history” that is put in Suriya’s communist mouth. It shows that thousands of tribes like the Irulars were treated with dignity and kindness by successive Hindu kings and they formed an important part of the economy and society. They were reduced to their sorry plight first by Muslim invasions and later by the extortionist policies of the British. Even worse, this plight was worsened by the Nehruvian Sultanate of “independent” India and the Dravidian tyranny of Tamil Nadu.
The “history” that Jai Bhim mentions is actually its perversion.
Which brings us to a related point: the role of “Periyar” and his train-wreck called the Dravidian movement, which actually pushed tribes like the Irulars further down to the pathetic state shown in the movie. Without going into too many details, here’s a straightforward question to the makers of Jai Bhim: would they summon the guts to ask the DMK and the Dravidian machinery to give up their political power and seat the Irulars on the throne in a spirit of goodwill and social justice?
As we briefly noted, a central theme of Jai Bhim is an unremitting battle against the police system, which is the most visible daily reality of Government and State power. This is standard Communist playbook. Wherever Communists have triumphed in former democracies, the first casualty have always been the police.
In Jai Bhim, not only are the police shown as corrupt, brutal and casteist, they are also shown to be inept even while covering up their misdeeds. But then, there’s no other way the movie can show them. After all, our legal Che Guevara must win.
The only shining exception is the IGP character played by Prakash Rai, a real-life Communist. He’s an exception because he’s a communist. But he has to undergo a cleansing process first, and Saviour Suriya shows the way to this salvation step-by-step. He keeps triumphing in every encounter with Prakash Raj till the poor cop sees the error of his ways. The climax of his reformation is that widely and deservedly condemned scene where he brutally slaps the Tilak-wearing Hindikaaran (generally speaking, North Indian), screaming, “Speak in Tamil!”
Even as we speak, “Thandai” “Periyar” will be proudly stroking his ground-length white beard, twisting with joy in his grave.
This is the other trope that Jai Bhim unabashedly exhibits. In fact, Sengeni, the poor Irular woman gets to meet the Marx and Periyar addict, Suriya only with the help of the Communists in her village.
Communists are shown in glorious and crusading light in several strategic scenes throughout the movie, which is consistent with its patented politics. In a noteworthy scene, Suriya tells Prakash Rai, “these criminals have caste, money, and power to back them up. But the victims? We are all they have. We will also go to any extreme. Law to me is a just another weapon in this battle.”
A notable reason for Jai Bhim’s success and mindless acclaim is its storytelling and craft, which is above average at best. Gnanavel has managed to wrest quite an impressive performance from its entire cast except Suriya who attempts to portray a quiet intensity but fails because he simply can’t get over the thrill of being dolled up like Che Guevara. The award for the most stellar performance undoubtedly goes to Lijomol Jose who plays Sengeni.
But to those familiar with cinematic sleights of hand, it is clear that several scenes and dialogues in Jai Bhim have strong imprints of Jolly LLB and Visaranai. Indeed, Visaranai set the tone for showing on-screen police brutality in a highly disturbing and repulsive fashion, airbrushed by “reviewers” as “realistic” portrayals. The scenes showing the elaborate tortures of the Irulars have contributed in a substantial fashion to the movie’s success.
Which also brings us to the other element of Jai Bhim: bluntly speaking, it is exploitation porn. It is nobody’s contention that the Irulars were wronged but the cinematic depiction of the horrific, real-life incident is tainted by a specific ideology, which boxes human exploitation to just one tribe or caste.
Here’s a logical question, especially to Tamil filmmakers of this tinge: in the heydays of the “self-respect movement,” Justice Party activism, and violent Dravidian separatism deliberately provoked by ideological goondas like Ramaswami Naicker, the Brahmin community was the prime target, marked for extinction. That extinction has largely been achieved today. But along the way, generations of countless innocent Brahmins became victims for the sole crime of the accident of birth. How about making a film on just one such Brahmin family? Of slapping false cases of caste atrocity? Of snatching away livelihood? Of forced mass-migrations? Of the innumerable stories of a certain Chief Minister who in his Dravidian youth used to hurl fish in the Arghya-Patram of Brahmins performing their Sandhyavandanam? Of physically chopping off their Shikha? Of raping their girls and women? Or even more recently, of Dravidian goons bashing up aged Brahmin Purohitas? These filmmakers need not even look hard to find these stories: they would find an Irutappan and Sengeni in nearly every Brahmin house in Tamil Nadu.
But the other ugly reality of Jai Bhim reveals itself in the end. Doubtless, Suriya has become the Saviour of the Irulars. But their true emancipation will occur only if they follow in his path: i.e., the innate message is that they are ready to become—or have become—the unsuspecting recruits of a thinly-veiled Maoism. To understand the true nature, process and real-life consequences of such recruitment, do watch this interview with a surrendered Naxal, Pahad Singh.
Jai Bhim selects a real-life event and twists it in order to propagandize the worst elements of the Communist and Dravidian ideology using human misery as a vehicle. The fact that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister befittingly named Stalin, gave a glowing review of the movie should tell us the real story of Jai Bhim.
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