By Papri Sri Raman
A number of Tamil filmmaker are telling Dalit stories anew these days, what has changed here is the perpetrator –not the traditional upper caste landlord –it is the state. The state is the people’s opponent, using a colonial, outdated instrument of oppression, the police.
Where our colonial masters have turned the British Bobby into a benevolent do-gooder in films to Noddy books, the film portrayal of the police in India only create great revulsion. One of the criticisms of Jai Bhim has been the brutality shown. This is, however, not the only film showing police torture in Tamil Nadu, which has a long history of cruelty.
This year’s Oscar entry from India is the film Visaranai, again a story of police torture. In 2019 had come the much-acclaimed Asuran, with Dhanush in the lead role, again a story of institutional brutality which has not changed its mindset over time and does not care how it comes across in popular imagination.
One does not easily forget which side Advocate General S Ram Mohan took in the 1993 case on which the story of Jai Bhim is based or the IG-level officer Walter Devaram, let loose on the forest dwellers of Sathyamangalm forests, in his search for Veerappan in the 1990s; or the June 2020 beating, torture, sexual assault and custodial death of a father and son in Thoothukudi.
After watching Jai Bhim, one is forced to conclude that unless this colonial institution is totally scrapped, and a completely new law management system is brought in, there is no hope for a 21st century India; an IT-savvy cyberpolice is not enough. Unless these batons and hooks, nails, ropes, shackles and guns are thrown away, nothing will change.
The soldier in the Indian army does not have the power to carry a gun in normal times but the lowest police rank can, without a mandatory licence and order. Even the young, educated policeman gets indoctrinated by the colonial system of torture. One agrees arrests have to be made. But what happens to ordinary people after this arrest is unbelievable. But then India is one of the ten countries that did not sign the UN-sponsored 2010 anti-Torture agreement. Patriarchy and power joins hand in the Indian police system in a naked display of violence and films only depict reality.
There are two ways that one can look at Jai Bhim directed by T J Gnanavel and produced by Jyothika and Suriya, with the lyrics for the songs by Yugabharathi, Raju Murugan and Arivu. Lijomol Jose gives an unforgettable performance as Senggeni.
One is through the lense of six Cs – class, caste, crime, communism, Chandru and the constitution. The other is to consider it as an indictment of the system. The name Jai Bhim confuses the average viewer, taking the mind to mythology; it is only viewers who are students of Dalit literature also who connect it quickly to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Constitution of India that he fathered.
Our constitution provides for a Habeas Corpus plea – in other words, if one goes to a court and pleads for the production-presence of the body of a person –missing, kidnapped or interred and killed, the court can order the opposing party, even if it is the government and the police, or parents, in-laws, family and all other suspects to produce the victim, live or dead in court. This is a huge instrument of justice Ambedkar gifted us, a constitutional right. The common man rarely knows of this right and even rarely is it ever used by the poor and marginalised. To increase the film’s reach perhaps, there is a bad Hindi dubbing.
It begins with a real-life story, that of the Irula tribe. Notwithstanding Periyar, in caste-conscious Tamil Nadu, the marginalised Irula tribe have no land, no address, no right to any kind of permanency, like several other communities. Like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar’s Musahar tribe, Irulas too eat rats and mouse, they are snake catchers by profession and they have been in limelight since 1972 when Romulus Whitaker set up the Madras Snake Park and Trust and involved the tribe in extracting snake venom used for the production of anti-venom drugs. So, it wasn’t as if the Tamil Nadu government was unaware of the existence of such a community in the 1990s.
Jai Bhim begins by showing how cast structure plays out in villages and how class equations justify exploitation and mistreatment. There is one poignant scene, where an Irula child is brought for school admission, which he cannot get without a caste-certificate. The bane called a caste-certificate is compounded by lack of a permanent address, which cannot be there without a house or land. The caste vote is important in Tamil Nadu politics almost a century after the Dravidian sun rose in this land. After watching the film, Chief Minister Stalin said, he could not sleep. Lead actor Suriya responded with, that is the biggest complement the film could get.
This story is located in a time before the Universal Right to Education, but almost eighty years after freedom, the situation is not much better for people. And it is not only in Tamil Nadu, but such mindless discrimination exists even today across India – no school admission if you do not have a local address, no right to vote even in national elections, if you do not prove you are local. This in a 21st century India where more than 30 per cent of the population, cutting across class, is immigrant as you and I are. And for those who argue for digital access, a Dalit worker in a distant state cannot avail of the e-option, an Irula man who cannot read may not be able to recognise numbers. This film, thus, notes the systemic flaw, and not only in Tamil Nadu. Can be anywhere in the country. The stupidities of the system do not end here though.
The second half of the film belongs to Suriya as Chandru. K Chandru was a card-holding activist lawyer in the Chennai High Court in the 1980s known for his pro bono cases. The CPI (M), then an ally of the Congress-led union government, expelled him from the party in 1988 for opposing the IPKF presence in Sri Lanka, supporting the Lankan government action against its Tamil people. Though some left flags lent colour to the film, it also makes one reflect on how the Indian Left lost thousands of its supporters and their families by such misplaced political positions.
In 1992, an Irula woman, Senggeni approached Chandru with a plea that she could not find her husband, picked up by the police after a false accusation of theft.
Because of the community’s low social standing, the police routinely accuse these men and women of petty crimes and thefts, despite no proof. Proof has no meaning in these far reaches of the country, much like in the case of the transgender community that continues to be labelled as criminals even after Section 377 was struck down.
Through a Habeas Corpus plea, Chandru demanded the victim be produced in court or he has been killed in police custody. Winning Senggeni’s case, the real Chandru, a die-hard Ambedkarite, made a huge impact on all marginalised communities and became a legend in legal history, much like Erin Brockovich. He was made a judge by President Abdul Kalam, and sat in court till 2013, disposing off 96,000 cases, many on behalf of the Irula union, Pazhangudi Irular Paathukappu Sangam. That’s a huge number in a legal system bogged by unresolved cases.
Chandru invoked the infamous Rajan case from neighbouring Kerala, when during Emergency, a student was picked up and killed in police custody. Despite a Habeas Corpus plea, Rajan’s body was never found in spite of the father’s long and sustained effort. Rajan’s father later wrote a book. The 1975 Malayalam film Sahapaadi, the 1988 film Piravi directed by Shaji N Karun, the 2013 film Idukki Gold all reference the Rajan case. Here one protagonist is shown throwing an inkpot at the Kerala Home Minister, symbolically throwing ink at the system. The 2018 film Kaattu Vithachavar shows the investigation done by a police team. The writer CR Omanakuttan has written a book, Shavamtheenikal, which is an expose of the brutality that was perpetrated on Rajan.
Listen to My Case!: When Women Approach the Courts of Tamil Nadu is a book on the Irula case. India’s Oscar entry Visaranai (Interrogation), on human rights violations by the state, won the Amnesty International Italia Award at the Venice International Festival this year, the first ever for a Tamil film. Here again four Dalit people are tortured for a crime they did not commit. In Asuran, protagonist Sivasaami is told to prostrate before every male resident of the landlord’s village as atonement and the police is the henchman of feudalism here.
The macho policeman or the ‘good policeman who has to be violent’ to kill evil does nothing to reduce violence in the system. The same Suriya played Singam in the hugely popular eponymous film. Ajay Devgun’s Singhm enhanced the machismo and violence. Inspired by this, a cartoon series promotes Little Singham, a animated television series produced by Rohit Shetty with Discovery Kids and Reliance Animation. The entire system perpetrates such violence that the police cannot be blamed for believing their job is to put a baton up someone’s butt. At least a few Indian films are now not glorifying the police, unlike Paatallok and Delhi Crime. (IPA Service)