Ahead of the release of Suriya-starrer, Jai Bhim, the film's director Tha Se Gnanavel speaks about his sophomore venture, its inspiration, efforts to represent the community right and more.
Is Jai Bhim the story of the tribal community or the lawyer?
It is the story of the lawyer only. The tribal community is affected. Chandru, a legal legend, fights for their cause and gets them justice. Jai Bhim is the story of one case in Chandru's life, inspired by the real case that he fought as an advocate.
Is it a biopic?
Most certainly not. The film doesn't talk about Justice Chandru's past or anything like that. It is just about that one case. But, we've been careful to include Chandru Sir's characteristics in Suriya's character.
In that case, are we assuming a saviour complex here?
There is nothing to be a saviour about. What I'd like for you to understand is that there is a victim. They are weak, because of various social reasons. A lawyer is standing by their side. Chandru was a lawyer, a full-time member of the Communist Party, leading their legal wing. In that sense, he's a comrade here, fighting by their side.
We shouldn't understand that as being a saviour. In fact, I believe that it is the social responsibility of all of us to stand by victims.
Why did you choose this story to tell?
When I first heard about the real incident, it had an impact. It made me wonder how those of us who're connected globally are so disconnected locally. I got all the court documents from Justice Chandru. I learned about the investigation and the case from these documents. Chandru Sir also filled in the gaps and told us more about the case.
And then, I adapted this to the background of the Irular community. The Irula people continue to be victims of false cases to this day. When we think of 'tribes,' we generally think of hill tribes. But the Irula people are a terrain tribe. They live in villages within 15-20 kilometres off Chennai itself. Given how close they are to the so-called civilised people, their situation is far more pathetic than the hill tribes, who are somewhat isolated and left alone.
They continue to be harassed with false cases because we, as a society, don't even know about their existence. In a sense, they are invisible. We've tried as much as possible to shed light on that reality in Jai Bhim.
What efforts have you put into understanding and portraying the Irular community in Jai Bhim?
As a team, we were very particular about showing the lives of the tribal communities on screen. First of all, a vast majority of the Irular characters in the film are played by members of the community itself. We conducted workshops and trained them in acting. The lead characters of the film, Lijo Mol and Manikandan, stayed with the community for over two months. They went along while hunting, worked in brick factories, practiced scenes in their huts, living in their environment to understand their lives.
When you're making a film about a community that you don't belong to, it is not your story. Then, how do you make it authentic?
I don't think I don't belong to the community. I might not be one of them by birth, but I do belong by ideology. I wrote the film from that perspective.
Given that it was a real incident, I had all the facts in order. I've long been introduced to their lives, I've written about them while I was a journalist. When I began writing the film, I got help from Pazhangudi Irular Paadhugaappu Sangam, an organization working in the interest of the Irulas community. Professor Kalyani and team have been appearing for the Irula people against false cases for over 30 years. They were of great support to me as well. We've done a lot of research to understand the Irular community and present them authentically on screen. I believe it'll be fresh for the audience.
How did you make casting decisions for the film?
There are two groups of people in the film. We have police, lawyers, judges etc. who are privileged. And there are the Irula people, who are victimised. We wanted to have a stark contrast between these two groups right from the casting.
So, the legal and law enforcement system is full of known actors like Prakash Raj, Rao Ramesh, Guru Somasundaram, MS Bhaskar, Jayaprakash etc. While relating to or recognising the characters in the legal system, we wanted the audience to feel like they're on the side of the oppressors.
On the other hand, we deliberately chose fairly unknown actors like Manikandan and Lijo Mol. In a production house like 2D, for a film starring Suriya, it is easy to find popular actors for all roles. It would have been more prudent financially too. However, then, the audience will end up seeing the actor and not the character.
When I began auditions, I wanted native-looking actors. And I was particular about actors who can give the time and energy this film needs. With Manikandan, I knew he would be able to transform into the character. He worked for over six months, losing weight, becoming athletic and nimble, growing out his hair etc. You can't give a stack of bricks to an actor and expect them to walk authentically. It needs practice. Manikandan and Lijo learned and practiced such things.
Even though we used computer graphics to show the hunting scenes, we accompanied the Irula people — who hunt in the nights — to observe their body language. We would leave past 10pm and walk around the terrain forests along with them. This included not just the actors, but also the direction team, cinematography and art departments as well.
Tell us about the music of the film.
In my opinion, Sean Roldan is an authentic musician. He is among the few who comfortably make music for realistic films. That's the reason why I chose him. In Joker, he's proved himself. He was able to take a folk singer from Dharmapuri to a national stage. He was able to make rooted music for the landscape of that film.
In Jai Bhim, there are no lip songs (songs where characters on screen sing) or anything like that. There is one montage song about the life of Irula people called 'vettai kaara koottam naanga.' For that song, we've used the sounds and musical forms of the Irula people themselves. This will be in stark contrast to the sound of authority that you'll see in scenes at the High Court.
Jai Bhim is streaming on Amazon Prime Video on 2nd November.