Khakhi Uniform Vs Red Shawl! A Film Review of “Jai Bhim”

Based on the true story of an adivasi woman desperately trying to find the whereabouts of her husband, who was falsely implicated on theft charges, taken into police custody and reported to be missing, Jai Bhim is a film that is soul stirring and exposing the ugly face of caste oppression, police brutality and opaqueness of legal institutions to common people. In the very first scene, poor families are waiting for the release of their family members from jail. However, to their dismay, all the men of the marginalized sections of the society are segregated on the basis of their low caste status and distributed between various police stations and charged with false case/s as the police fail to nab the real culprits within the stipulated time. Police implicates 12 men on false charges. One of their families, with the help of a Communist leader, appeals to the court through an advocate, Chandru, played by actor Surya. Thus begins the struggle to prove their innocence, expose the fabricated charges and corrupt officials involved.

Advocate Chandru, a rebel and a Communist, is leading street struggles for various causes and appears for human rights issues in the court. Sengeni, played by actor Lijomol Jose, a pregnant woman from Irula tribe, accompanied by a teacher of adult literacy programme, approaches him to find her missing husband. The film captures the proceedings in the court and in the course of it unravels the mystery behind the disappearance of Sengeni’s husband Rajakannu, played by actor K Manikandan, and seeks justice for the custodial torture and killing of Rajakannu.

The film is in a way singular in bringing to light the plight of the adivasis, who are deprived of basic rights, opportunities and facilities. Even the basic minimum right to life is not guaranteed for these lower rungs of the society. Everybody seems to be vested with unquestionable power to exploit, discriminate and illtreat them. The simple, nomadic community, traditionally known for catching rats and snakes and for treating snakebites, is subjected to severe forms of abuse at work, in the neighbourhood and in public offices.

The film expands and transforms the canvas of the case into a narrative of multiple issues of domination and exploitation faced by the marginalized sections, the lack of agency and justice to the community. Through the traumatic and unremitting struggle of Sengeni, the film brings to the fore the abhorrent practice of criminalizing the entire tribe by slapping false charges on them. The film is uncompromising in detailing the ‘third degree’ torture meted out in police stations to coerce them into accepting the criminal offenses they did not commit and consequently, undergo conviction. In the eventuality of the victims refusing to accept the false charges, the severe tortures lead to custodial deaths as in the case of Rajakannu and terrorize the entire community on the pretext of their escape from the police station. Yet, another modus operandi, is to inflict sexual torture on the womenfolk to compel men to concede to these crimes.

Right from the beginning, the film is consistent in its viewpoint that the case of Rajakannu is not an isolated case of police excess but that it is a regular routine that the adivasis are framed under false charges. In the open forum, where adivasis are deposing before IG Perumalsamy, it is made obvious that they are major victims of police terror. A woman shares the pain of custodial sexual violence wreaked on her in order to commit her husband to the false allegations.  Rajakannu’s sister Pachaiyamma is disrobed and raped before her brother and relatives in station. The police use sexually abusive language on both Sengeni and Pachaiyamma. Further, the police violate laws by arresting a woman (Sengeni), that too a woman in full term pregnancy, at night and physically assaulting her. The film underscores the gendered nature of police violence.

In a remarkable manner, through the court proceedings, the film highlights the problems of evidence-based legal trial. Everything not only needs to have evidence but should be proven in the courts. In custodial killings and false cases, where the custodians of law themselves are the perpetrators of the crime and have official authority and backing of state power, is it all that easier for the victims or their families to fight the powers that be? Even, a prominent advocate, committed to people, like Chandru, had severe odds in taking forward the case and had to make extraordinary efforts to prove the killing and get justice to Sengeni. If not for the cooperation of the IG Perumalsamy, what would have happened to the case?

In a way, the film, while exposing the police excesses and corruption, relies on the very same institution and in rebuilding some kind of trust on it. The director T. Gnanavel has asserted that this is a victory of constitutional means of struggle.  But the reality remains that it is not as simple as it looks to be. The pitfalls of this constitutional means for adivasis, or any commoners for that sake, is too high. How many victims can knock at the doors of the court, how many would come across a dedicated advocate like Chandru, how many can go through this painful and protracted battle etc. are a big question mark. However, the film, within the limits of mainstream cinema, tries to be honest in showing the role of Communist party through struggles, petitions, and in assisting the advocate-cum-Communist in locating the necessary documents and in bringing the case to the limelight, even as it projects Chandru as the mastermind behind this mission of justice.

One cannot have an oversight of the fact that the film is overt in identifying Chandru as a Communist by showing him protesting with people holding red flags, pasting posters and distributing pamphlets that carry the hammer and sickle symbol, interacting with people of red shawls, even seated in front of Communist party office or protesting in front of the Toilers’ statue in the beach. His office has portraits of Karl Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar. Whenever he is listening to Sengeni’s narration, Karl Marx’s relief is behind him and the last part of the film has Lenin’s statue. The film has given a positive portrayal of Communists by showing their commitment and dedication to the people’s cause. This apart, even as Chandru’s character is shown to be instrumental, the film is against idolising individuals as seen in a scene where people bring garlands to Chandru’s house and he shows the board that says there is no God here, please do not bring flowers and shawls.  The austere life of Chandru – simple house, self-cooking, travels in crowded trains or motorcycle, eating and drinking tea in small stalls and accommodating Sengeni and child in his house all point to his Communist way of life. His identification with Communism is quite obvious. Such films with stars on such characters are rare in mainstream cinema.

Beyond the issue of custodial killing, the film touches upon the other issues of Adivasi community - pattas for land, bonded labour, low paid labour, illiteracy and dignity. Through the other cases and protests, like that of Aavin workers dismissed for demanding wage increase, the film takes a pro-labour and anti-establishment stance. The film, at several points, creates an impression of khakhi uniform versus red shawl and is indeed a tribute to Marx and Ambedkar. On the whole, there is a little red spark that allays Sengeni’s and the Adivasi community’s fears of being left in the lurch even if they are killed. ν