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Does Amazon-Prime’s new Tamil film deserve the backlash? The ‘Jai Bhim’ controversy

The film Jai Bhim has been a source of controversy for many reasons. This write-up is not a movie review per se, however, it is meant to highlight the controversies and setbacks that are surrounding this movie.

The Kollywood flick ‘Jai Bhim’ (a legal drama), a new kid in the block. The film was launched on Amazon Prime Video (OTT platform) on November 2nd, just in time for Diwali, and received rave reviews. So what is the film ultimately about? The film was inspired by true eventsof a tribal man (Rajakannu) who was wrongly accused and arrested in a theft case and died in custody as a result of police abuse and brutality in Tamil Nadu in 1993 (Case History in the High Court of Madras H.C.P. No. # 711 of 1993).

The film follows his wife Senggeni (original name was Parvathi) and the advocate K Chandru (currently, a retired high court judge) as they struggle for justice to Senggeni, the main protagonist. Advocate Chandru files a habeas corpus petition (Under Article 226 of the Constitution of India) and cite another similar case, and fight for justice. The film has received a resoundingly enthusiastic response from viewers both inside and outside of the country, and it has won the hearts of many because of the tragic real-life incident that occurred in the early 1990s. But does the movie, however, deserve the backlash it received?

The film Jai Bhim has been a source of controversy for many reasons. This write-up is not a movie review per se, however, meant to highlight the controversies and setbacks that are surrounding this movie. Readers who want additional information about the film should not expect to find it here.

On the surface, it looks that the film had a positive message for the masses, but it appears that it has a personal agenda and distinct political purpose hiding beneath the carpet. The attention-grabbing title, ‘Jai Bhim,’ is a slogan popularized by the followers and supporters of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an Indian academic, social reformer, and the principal architect of the Indian Constitution. Some politicians even claimed that the film’s title was unsuitable. With pictures of Karl Marx, Dr. Ambedkar, and E.V. Ramasamy Naicker (‘Periyar’), the film has the typical hallmark characteristics of ‘porali’ films. According to the promos, all of the characters’ genuine names were used in the film. However, that was not the case here.

The controversies surrounding Jai Bhim

To begin with, Parvathi Ammal was not informed, consulted, and her formal approval was not obtained. The film crew never approached her to show their interest in making a film out of her life’s events, or to try to assess her current financial situation or secure her with proper housing arrangements, or to initially offer financial compensation. Her current living situation was, to put it mildly, dreadful. Several of the critics were under the view that the name Parvathi was purposefully changed to Senggeni, and the protagonist’s caste was altered from Kuravar to Irular to avoid any potential legal consequences. Thus, the film undercut and twisted the Kuravar community’s identity, history, and pride.

The storylines were changed to kindle the emotion and gain the sympathy of the viewers. For example, the village chief was depicted as an arrogant man. However, in reality, he was very kind and helpful to the villagers and the couple, Rajakannu and Senggeni.

Some say, the film negatively painted the Vanniyar caste. The movie was said to have harmed the Vanniyar community’s reputation, thus they demanded an unequivocal apology. For example, the inclusion of ‘Agni kalasam’ (fire pot) and a character named, ‘Gurumoorthy’ who was a harsh, vicious sub-inspector of police. Out of the all available calendars used in the film, an ‘Agni Kalasam’ daily sheet calendar was chosen in a scene, and later it was transformed to a Hindu Goddess after a legal notice was issued against the film for allegedly distorting and maligning the Vanniyar community.

Subsequently, the film director released a letter of regret, but both Suriya and the director made no apology for hurting the sentiments of the Vanniyar community. Following that, when the calendar’s ‘Agni Kalasam’ image was changed to ‘Hindu Goddess,’ numerous Hindus mistook the film crew for causing injustice to all Hindus, reigniting the controversy. They began to wonder, “Why Hindus and why not a neutrally sounding image as a replacement?”.

The Agaram Foundation, which received philanthropic contributions from the public, made a donation of one crore rupees to the Irular Foundation, which sparked more controversy. According to critics, actor Surya never paid the money out of his own pocket. His ethics and integrity were also questioned for not helping Kuravas, who were the actual victims.

Despite the removal of the said scene, the popular Tamil dialogue writer, who framed the dialogues according to the contemporary dialects of the region in question, was involved in the film and has returned his payment, claiming that the film crew had betrayed him because the originally proposed title ‘Eli Vettai (Rat hunting) was changed. He even consulted on possible titles, according to reports.

The real name of the sub-inspector of police who was involved in the custodial torture and death of a member of an impoverished community who was wrongfully accused and framed was “Anthonisami” (a Christian), but he was portrayed in the film as Gurumurthy (a Hindu). The film crew, thus, allegedly and conveniently avoided using the real name of the sub-inspector of police. Additionally, critiques question the use of vanniyar symbolism that was brought into the picture. This is the question the film crew failed to address.

Early on, when Suriya published the Hindi trailer, netizens chastised him for releasing his films in Hindi, pointing out that he was the one who had forcefully condemned the supposed “Hindi Imposition” (#HindiTheriyadhuPoda) when the new National Education Policy was released. In one scenario, a character was slapped in one contentious moment for speaking in Hindi. It also sparked a dispute on social media, with netizens calling it “hypocrisy,” “propaganda,” and “heartbreaking,” stating that it fosters anti-Hindi sentiment, while others defended it, claiming that it must be seen in context with the rest of the film. On this note, actor Suriya has also gotten a flood of support from his fans and fraternities, who have voiced their solidarity in this situation.

Some of the critics felt that the work of litigating lawyer Chandru was overemphasized in the movie (perhaps as a result of his political activities, involvement with left-wing politics during his legal career, and his current political sentiments) but shadowed the contribution of other legal counsels. Throughout the film, there is a lot of communist iconographies. Despite his tireless efforts, KR Govindan, a local CPI(M) leader, was eclipsed in this case.

Caste-based movies in the movie industry

While everyone agrees that someone can be proud of their caste or religion in India, they should not, however, disparage other castes or religions. This film, like many others in the genre, has succeeded in bringing caste and religion to the screen (To name a few, Orey Oru Gramathiley, Paruthiveeran, Pariyerum Perumal, Asuran, Karnan, Soorarai Potru, Draupadi, Rudra Thandavam, and many others). Some films have a positive outlook on ending disparity and segregation, while others are entirely profit-driven and will go to any length to achieve this.

As a result, evaluation of the true intent is crucial. Producing and directing a caste-based film has its own set of benefits to some since it will have an immediate client base, the film will most likely be successful, and the return on investment (ROI) and the breakeven point will be reached at the earliest.

The film crew has done Parvathi Ammal an injustice by not consulting her, obtaining her approval, and failing to pay royalties. Even though the film’s premise was social justice, their objective was utterly failed because Parvathi Ammal, who still lives on the edge, was not fairly compensated. Even after decades of the fateful event, her post-traumatic stress and repressed memories may never have been fully healed. When the news started to spread on social media platforms, in addition to several unknown philanthropists, Raghava Lawrence, a popular socially-conscious Tamil dancer, choreographer, actor, director, composer, decided to assist her financially and construct and gift a house for her.

When the public began questioning the Jai Bhim film crew, Parvathi Ammal was paid a pittance of ten lakh rupees to defend her image and for branding purposes. This isn’t a true sense of social justice. However, the film highlights the need for social awareness and social justice. Would Bhimrao Ambedkar, a well-known social reformer, approve of such conduct if he were still alive? On that note, the movie is a colossal flop. While reviewing the motives of the movie, an inspirational story entitled, “Breaking the Sugar Habit,” which was attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, comes to one’s mind, i.e. “How can we counsel someone on perfection if we aren’t even near to perfection?”

In the Tamil-language film industry (Kollywood), it has become the norm that for a film to succeed, caste and religion must be blended, the film must be controversial, and the film must almost surely be a hit. Caste-based films, particularly in Tamil Nadu, are cash cows. Every producer and director is aware of this. Critics say that some of the people of film industry  simply care about making money and have no regard for people, culture, tradition, morals, or feelings. The movie Jai Bhim is no exception to the rule.

Suriya’s films have included similar themes in recent years: caste politics, linguistic politics, and religious politics. For example, the original hero of one of his earlier films, ‘Soorarai Potru,’ was inspired in part by occurrences in the life of Simplifly Deccan founder G. R. Gopinath, who was a Brahmin. Suriya, who acted as the hero of that movie, on the other hand, is from a lower caste household in the film. Why would he do it? What might have been the motive behind it? Suriya’s works frequently show inequities and disparities, even though he has never said that he is linked with any of Tamil Nadu’s political organizations. People who challenge his political ideologies say that he was biased and will dare not direct a movie on other real-life politically-motivated incidences where human life was lost.

Over the years, some critics pointed to the fact that Davidian ideologies and anti-BJP sentiments (e.g. his views on NEET, Hindi, Centers educational policies) have been expressed by him. Themes or scenes related to Communism and Periyarism (e.g. social justice) can also be seen recently in Suriya’s movies. As a result, critics questioned why he wouldn’t support local film distributors, instead, he chose to sell his picture on Amazon’s over-the-top (OTT) media platform (considered one of the most recognized, powerful, and feared multi-billion-dollar companies in tech and beyond).

What Jai Bhim tells us about social inequality

Injustice in society is a social blight. It is ethically and morally wrong. However, it still exists in large numbers, albeit in isolated instances. The film eventually exposes two things. First, E.V. Ramasamy, the ‘Father of the Dravidian Movement’ and a well-known Tamil Nadu social activist, was unsuccessful (or at least the efforts were not enough) in eliminating social inequality. Secondly, the year of the incidence highlights the failure of Dravidian politics to eliminate caste- and religion-based discrimination over the several decades of ruling in the State of Tamil Nadu. However, critics question the need of a film such as Jai Bhim to remind the people and politicians of Tamil Nadu alike to take the much-needed action. If this wasn’t the motive, what else might be?

The existence of the caste system, which has been constitutionally warranted to protect downtrodden communities. The issue is, many people in power misuse them. If caste system were to be completely abolished, social injustices and inequalities will begin to go away. This, on the other hand, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Despite the passing of several decades, a sector of society continues to be ‘marginalized,’ and their quality of life never gets improved. In Tamil Nadu, certain Tamil politicians from various political parties, as well as members of the Tamil film industry, work hard to make people aware of caste division for financial gain. People must be integrated, not segregated, using lessons learned in the past. However, this is not what these folks normally do. They show the problem again and again but offer no solution to it.

Supporters of the film Jai Bhim give it glowing accolades, oblivious to the elephant in the room. One thing became clear in a decade defined by the rise of social media platforms: Moving forward, the producers, directors, and studio houses will be held more vigorously accountable for their actions, particularly for irresponsible content, taking polarized positions in terms of caste, religion, language, and political opinions, and much more. Many supporters of this movie are confident that this film is impressive enough to be nominated for some awards. Over the years, many such caste- and religion-based films have become box office hits and have received national and international prizes in a variety of categories, according to history.

The awarding panels’ motivations must be investigated. As a result of their acts, films with comparable themes are still being made. Regrettably, the true core motives shouldn’t be overlooked. While most of us want caste, religious, race, and ethnic differences among Indians, particularly in the State of Tamil Nadu to vanish, any accolades given to films like this that focus on caste and/or religion will indirectly encourage and endorse other producers and directors to jump on the bandwagon and make more caste-based films for making millions by inciting animosity between different groups. We’ll all find out soon enough.

Finally, and most importantly, police brutality continues to be a problem in Tamil Nadu. In the recent past, there have been reports of unlawful assaults, torture, and horrific custodial murders. It is necessary to design and implement more severe standard operating procedures (SOPs), guidelines, standards, frameworks, and methodologies. Proper documentation of the events, periodic training, psychological and mental health counseling, and constant supervision from the higher authorities to the police officers are very much needed to eliminate such issues in the future. Because the perpetrators will jeopardize the reputation of the entire police force in Tamil Nadu, harsh punishment should also be implemented. As a consequence, more transparency and accountability are needed.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Searched termsJai Bhim review
Seithikurippu R
Seithikurippu R
Seithikurippu R. Pandi-Perumal is a Canadian Indian scientist, and has been recognized as one of the World's top 2% scientists by Stanford University. He specializes in the areas of Mental Health, Public Health, and Global Health. He is also a biologist interested in the areas of ecological conservation and climate change. Opinions expressed by him are personal and not of any organisation or institution mentioned here.

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