Updated: Mar 16
Films that talk about real stories of the underprivileged, the ostracized and the disadvantaged have been largely few and far in between. Their struggles and life has seen representation on the big screen only in the recent past. More importantly, these films (like Kaaka Muttai, Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan, Kaala, Saarpatta Parambarai), stay true to the realities and portray the life of these people in a way that commands applause for the realism and respect for not diluting the grammar of the visual medium.
Jai Bhim is another important film in the series of such movies. Though biographical to a large extent (which I think is important for a film as it gives a story a central character to build a screenplay around), the director TJ Gnanavel has not let go of the central issue that has made the film biographical in the first place. Since this is a pretty late review of the film, I would be talking about the cinematic and the emotional aspects of the film in good detail, as objectively as possible.
The plot A man belonging to an ostracized tribe (Irular tribe) is wrongfully convicted of a crime. His wife along with a do-gooder lawyer embark on a mission ready to pull all stops to get justice for him and as a result to the community as well.
Come to think of it, the film fits the template of an underdog-turns-achiever canvas. The initial scenes establish how difficult life is for them. While establishing their life it is easy to get the audience to root for the tribe by showing their difficulty coupled with a rousing and wailing background score. Throw in an "unjust death" in the introduction and you would tug at the hearts of the viewers. But the director goes against this grain, thankfully. From a refreshing perspective, we see the tribe happy and proud of their life. They are happy and humble folks with a very simple outlook on life. They are extremely knowledgeable and intelligent - lookout for the character introduction of Manikandan and Lijomole Jose (Raajakannu and Sengeni) where they come up with a brilliant way of getting the fields rid of the parasitic rodents. The peppy Vettakaaran Kootam sung by a colourful Anthony Dassan bounces about and shows how happy they are with themselves.
Cinematically, this kind of introduction helps as the viewers set into a completely opposite mood of what's going to come next. Therefore, the later shots (largely fleeting and blink-and-miss kind of shots) are impactful and also function as a set-up. For instance, there is a scene where Raajakannu is called to catch a snake at a landlord's house. When he comes and hops onto the bike, Raajakannu takes the support of the rider's shoulder which the man disapproves of with a threatening look thrown at him. Since this can be missed, the untouchability is once again shown when he's at the house where the landlord says, "You couldn't get anyone else to let into my house!" The emphasis on class and caste discrimination finally ends with the landlord's wife barking at him when he says that she and he belong to the same native. This scene, then followed by how they can't get their kids into a school as easily as someone from a higher caste are enough for us to root for the community.
While establishing their plight, there is a beautiful scene where Raajakannu talks to a snake (in Tamil, not in Parseltongue), "Only staying away from humans will do you good. Got it?" This is a beautiful set-up/foreshadow of what comes next. The police become the humans while Rajaakannu becomes the hapless and helpless snake. This scene would also ring in the viewers' minds when he gets beaten black and blue along with two other friends of his from the same community who are guilty of belonging to that community and nothing else.
While all of this is splendid writing, what really makes the tight screenplay engaging is the performance of the different departments. The actors, especially Lijomol Jose (Sengeli) and Manikandan (Raajakannu) steal the show. Suriya as Chandru plays essentially an extended cameo role. Here it is important to notice the writing and the direction which doesn't lose its focus once the star enters the screenplay. There are two things to appreciate here. One is the treatment of the character of Suriya devoid of any unnecessary and wanton heroics (read, fight scenes, slow-mo introduction shot, etc.). Secondly, it is the way in which the mass elements are added organically into the screenplay. The second point comes out beautifully, where we are shown how Chandru works at his house. We see him bounce the ball off the wall while thinking. We see him avoid the garlands from his clients who celebrate their victory. These are elements of "heroism" that don't really come in the way of the story and screenplay. Instead, these instances add to the depth of the character, cinematically and for a person who looks for believability in films, they could just be who Chandru is as a person.
While we talk about the writing it is important to see that other than the few central characters of Raajakannu, Sengeni, the sub-inspector and Chandru, the other characters are not that developed. For instance, the character of Rajisha Vijayan reminds me of Malavika Mohanan's character in Master. Though it is her character that brings Sengeni to Chandru, other than the customary flourishes aimed to avoid her being single-dimensional, there is no clear developmental arc. The same goes for the characters of the Advocate General and the DGP. I felt really bad for the character of MS Bhaskar who was practically wasted in a role that only saw him refraining, "Sivaya Namaha". However, for a film that is based on real-life, it is only natural. It's because the story is being told from the point of view of Sengeni (and Chandru, at times) who meet these characters very late in the story.
The other important departments like the background score, cinematography and dialogues deserve a special mention here. Sean Roldan with a beautiful score keeps us hooked on the central emotion of the film without being over the top with his scores. His songs are heartfelt and stick to the core intention of the film. In terms of the cinematography, I have some favourite shots. Let's face it. For a film like this, it is really not possible to do some stunts in the lighting or shot composition as the focus can be lost. Yet, cinematographer Kathir does an amazing job. While beautifully capturing the life of the Irular tribe in the initial parts of the film, he also has his mass moments behind the camera.
For instance, the shot between Chandru and the DGP (played by the evergreen Prakash Raj) is framed in a way where both the characters are seen through the two windows of a car. What other way can one show how they belong to two opposing schools of thought? Another beautiful shot is when Chandru is introduced. We get Gnanavel's version of the hero introduction as the camera slowly pans and reveals Chandru's face amidst the many raised fists of the protesting lawyers. That is the title card scene of the film in my opinion. The dialogues are simple and keep the melodrama at just the right level. There are some punchlines, but they don't come across as out of context or out of place.
The portions of the film where we see Raajakannu and his friends being brutalized by the police reminds one of Visaranai. It's the staging, the makeup and the sound design which would make your stomach churn at the visuals. These scenes are grotesque which are heightened by the splendid performances by the actors in the scene.
It is heartening to see that big stars like Suriya are taking up projects like this that don't necessarily provide fodder to his stardom but challenge him as an actor This is also a good sign for the directors and writers who believe that content is the king.
To conclude, this film is yet another important and impactful attempt in the lines of Pariyerum Perumal, Kaaka Muttai and Karnan that talk about the struggles and pains of the downtrodden, of the ostracized, of the disadvantaged and most importantly, of the most deserved.