The Outrage Towards ‘Jai Bhim’ Shows Why It’s Important To Tell Uncomfortable Stories
The Vanniyar Sangam, a powerful dominant caste outfit in Tamil Nadu, issued a legal notice to the makers and producers of Jai Bhim. The film is an Amazon Prime release about custodial violence against members of an Adivasi community. The Vanniyar Sangam is the parent organization of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a political party in Tamil Nadu known for its anti-Dalit stance.
Jai Bhim is based on a real-life case of custodial torture of the Irula tribe. There is no evidence that the police officer in question did indeed belong to the Vanniyar community in real life. But the main contention against the filmmakers is the use of Vanniyar Sangam’s symbol in the background in a frame containing the police officer in question.
According to the petitioners, the film depicted the Vanniyar community in a bad light, by implying that the police officer responsible for the custodial violence of people from the Irula tribe may have been from the Vanniyar caste.
The row has since blown up, and leaders from the Sangam and PMK have issued threats against the film’s actor Suriya. The actor’s residence is now reportedly under police protection, following intelligence about credible threats against him.
Jai Bhim is a brutal film by all accounts. In it, Suriya plays Justice Chandru, an advocate who, at the time, fought a legal battle against police brutality on behalf of Sengeni (real name Parvathi Ammal), whose family was badly affected by it, to say the least. Parvathi and her husband Rajakannu hail from the Irula tribe, which traditionally has been associated with snake-catching and healing.
The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of custodial violence against wrongfully criminalized tribes like the Irulas, who are often accused of theft and petty offences, and are accordingly made the subjects of gruesome state-sanctioned, and even caste-based, violence.
The systemic nature of this violence continues to this day — perpetrated at the behest of outfits like the Vanniyar Sangam and the PMK. Although the film made no direct references towards the oppressor caste responsible (one of its shortcomings, arguably), the two outfits took umbrage with a symbol appearing in a particular frame. They also objected to the police officer being referred to as “Guru,” which they insist is a callback to the late PMK leader ‘Kaduvetti’ J Guru.
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The shoe evidently fits, and the Vanniyar Sangam and PMK were quick to wear it. The fact that these two outfits in particular are involved in such a stir against the film shows that it is all the more important to keep telling stories that make society uncomfortable about their complicity in violence against marginalized communities.
Although the film is about the custodial torture of an Adivasi family, and the Vanniyar community hasn’t been explicitly implicated, their outrage speaks to a much deeper foundation of caste violence they have been complicit in. In 2012, for instance, a mob of over a thousand Vanniyar men violently ransacked Dalit property worth 7 crores. The late leader, J Guru, allegedly called upon the community to “chop off the limbs” of anyone who falls in love with Vanniyar women; accordingly, an inter-caste marriage between a Vanniyar woman and a Dalit man was what allegedly drove the violence.
In the same year, a former member of the PMK was also allegedly involved in the murder of the Joint District Secretary of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), formerly called the Dalit Panthers of India. More recently, Dalit organizations stated that violence against Dalit and Adivasi people increased five-fold during lockdown, and the Vanniyar community was often behind instigating isolated incidents of violence.
As a result, many have come out in support of Jai Bhim’s filmmakers and the actor Suriya, with the hashtag #WeStandWithSuriya trending on Twitter. “For the longest time, the hate politics and horrific violence of the PMK+ Vanniyar Sangam caste fanatics used to be directed only against Dalits, esp VCK. Now PMK-Vanniyar Sangam have chosen a mainstream target. TN people must reject their hate politics,” wrote anti-caste author Meena Kandasamy in a tweet.
“A work of art can only bring attention to an issue. It is possible to bring real social change only through the state and political movements,” Suriya noted in a letter issued on the subject. Jai Bhim is that work of art — and the reaction from some corners towards what it stands for, shows that the film indeed succeeded not only in bringing attention to an issue, but also making the right people uncomfortable.