Director: Tha Se Gnanavel
Cast: Suriya, Lijomol Jose, Manikandan, Prakash Raj, Rao Ramesh, Guru Somasundaram, Rajisha Vijayan
Jai Bhim opens at the door of a prison. A policeman begins his roll call of the men leaving the prison that day. "Enna aalu ya?" (what caste are you?) he asks. Devar, Koravar, Vanniyar, Irular, Ottar, Gounder, Naidu, Mudaliyar are all answers. The cop segregates the most backward groups — Koravar, Ottar and Irular — to be handed off to a group of cops waiting to hoist more fake cases on them. The privileged walk away.
This scene appears as a prologue, soon breaking into opening credits. But it lingers, introducing Jai Bhim as a film where no holds are barred. Jai Bhim is the story of Advocate Chandru (Suriya), who fights the case of Sengani (Lijomol Jose), a Irular woman whose husband, Rajakannu (Manikandan), has been missing from police custody.
The film spends much of the first act introducing us to the life of Sengani and Rajakannu in a deliberate, if slightly strained, effort at humanising them. Writer-director Tha Se Gnanavel wants us to see them as more than uneducated poor victims. He wants us to first acknowledge them as hard-working, intelligent, people with dreams. Rajakannu loves riddles. He is quick with jokes. Sengani is a master antidote-maker for snakebites. In a rather sensitive scene, Maithra (Rajisha Vijayan) tries to teach them to write. Rajakannu, who doesn't pay much attention to the letters, draws her on the slate instead. Gnanavel wants us to see that there is more than one way to communicate.
While telling their story, Gnanavel also slowly establishes how the system is rigged against them. The upper castes habitually insult and discriminate against them, which they usually shrug off and move on. We see them struggle to get papers from the government. "We ask him for one paper and he's asking us for three," jokes one of them after being refused a caste certificate because they don't have ration card, voter ID, aadhaar card and so on! The film goes through several such everyday indignities, without a sense of outrage, perhaps priming us for what's to come.
At the thirty minute mark, when Sengani begins to narrate her husband's story, the film changes gear. From here, it plays out like an investigative thriller, revealing information little by little, keeping the audience not just on the hook, but also in hope. The writing in these parts is terrific, it makes us take the journey with the lawyer, who believes he has enough information to go to court, but each stage realising how much more he doesn't know. Every witness seems legitimate, until they're not. We know whodunit (it's the cops), but the 'how' keeps unravelling right till the end.
Yet, the film is careful not to present Chandru as some maverick investigator. He is merely persistent, applying commonsense to the information he's gathering. In fact, in Jai Bhim, Chandru needn't be a maverick at all. The cops' ploy unravels at the slightest nudge, their coverups are almost nonsensical. It would be easy to blame this on lazy writing. But, with a little more engagement, we understand that Gnanavel wants us to see how little effort the police even put into their lies. For instance, in Chandru's earlier case, the cops claim that the accused was stealing somewhere, when he was, in fact, in prison. Imagine how little the cops worry about being caught that they build coverups that are so easily disproved!
The casting takes the film up a notch. Lijomol Jose as Sengani embodies courage and vulnerability throughout the film. She makes us believe that this fight is worth fighting. Her tears of anger have much power in them. Manikandan as Rajakannu gives all of himself to the film, in whatever little is written for him. Guru Somasundaram's public prosecutor is despicable, speaking with a tone of understated arrogance that's characteristic of corrupt men in power. Rao Ramesh's advocate general takes this one step higher.
Jai Bhim is perhaps one of Suriya's most restrained performances, even if it starts off awkwardly. Early on, there is a scene in which, after hearing Sengani's story, Chandru bounces a rubber ball off the wall, recounting the main points of the case. "Negative," he asserts after each point, idiosyncratically. I was worried just for a moment if we'll be subject to his thinking and process a lot. But that self-obsession soon passes. Apart from a little bit of banter and sarcasm, Suriya let's the screenplay lead the way. And it serves him very well, keeping the lecturing and posturning to the minimum. As does Sean Roldan's music. The introduction song, written and sung powerfully by Arivu, is an intense rally cry.
Yet, despite its intentions, Jai Bhim can not resist turning parts of itself into violence porn. It shows the custodial torture of Rajakannu, Iruttappan and Mosakkutty multiple times over, each time escalating in intensity. It has extended scenes of sexual violence and humiliation, reminiscent of Bala's films. It also makes multiple characters recollect their trauma for a police officer.
Even as it insists on visualising violence, Jai Bhim takes the effort to counter-point it too. In a poignant scene, Iruttappan, Mosakutty and Rajakannu are sitting outside the station eating. Iruttappan suggests that they confess, unable to bear the torture any longer. To this, Rajakannu responds that the wounds in his body will heal soon, but the reputation of being a thief will ruin them forever. Within barely a couple of minutes, the film contrasts the grave humiliation the cops force on the three men, with temerity and self-respect of the marginalised. Sengani, too, stands up and makes noise every time she's beaten down.
With a run time of 2 hours and 44 minutes, Jai Bhim is an intense film, commanding your focussed engagement. Because there is certainly a lot more than meets the eye.