Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A pack of tribals are busy smoking out rats with fumigation pots in a village in South-India. They’ve been paid by a farmer to rid the rodents infesting his crop. That’s one of the first few scenes of ‘Jai Bhim’, the 2021 legal drama written and directed by T.J. Gnanavel, starring Lijo Mol Jose & Suriya as the primary protagonists.

Set in the 1990s, the story is about Rajakannu (K Manikandan) and Sengani (Lijomol Jose), an honest hardworking couple from the Irular tribe, a group known for their rat/snake catching skills. A day after Rajakannu catches a serpent in a wealthy man’s house, a burglary takes place there and he is named as a potential suspect. What follows next is a series of unlawful actions by the local police, which includes the detaining and thrashing of a pregnant Sengani.

The tone of the film quickly changes, from the idyllic simple lives of the Irulars, it moves to the grim reality of how their community is abused and brutalized by the system. The cops arrest Rajakannu and two of his family members, mercilessly beat them to get a confession, but to no avail. A few days later the cops claim the accused escaped from the police station. Sengani is distraught and doesn’t believe her husband fled, especially after he stoically bore brutal blows for days. She runs pillar to post to find a lawyer who’ll help in her quest to find her missing husband and prove his innocence. Enter Chandru (Suriya), a high court lawyer who doubles up as an activist in his free time, taking part in protests against cases of police brutality. He is known for doing pro bono work for human rights cases and is quick to take up Sengani’s cause.

The makers couldn’t resist the urge of putting the usual exaggerated drama and stylistic flourishes of music to introduce the hero of the film. For example, when we are first shown a high-court hearing, the court-room lights switch on in a rhythmic pattern, as if it’s a dance stage. But to the director’s credit, these little dramatic/stylistic elements of commercial Indian cinema aren’t overdone. They are in the right amount to hold the attention of all sorts of viewers – the ones that like their dramas over-garnished, and also those who prefer a serious no frills film. The police brutality scenes are violent, unbridled and will have your blood boiling. A significant amount of communist symbolism is slipped in, complete with the hammer-sickle red flags, which makes parts of the story feel like propaganda. But considering it’s loosely based on a real life case, one can perhaps forgive the blatant political posturing.

Lijomol Jose as the pregnant Sengani is absolutely riveting, not once does she slip out of character, and holds her own against the more experienced Suriya. And Suriya is all guts & glory as the activist/lawyer Chandru, who hero-worships BR Ambedkar and believes in equal rights. In court, he lands one sucker punch after the other against the prosecution, keeping the film intriguing and hard-hitting. Prakash Raj in his small cameo as an upstanding top-cop proves again that he can pull off all sorts of roles, even though we are used to seeing him as the ‘bad cop’ on screen. The other actors do a commendable job, although, the script could’ve used a stronger prosecuting lawyer.

Some scenes are slightly long-drawn to make the characters grow on the viewers, perhaps to make us feel more sympathetic for their plight as the story drums to an emotional climax. Despite the serious themes, the director manages to slip in some comic relief in the tense courtroom exchanges. The CGI in the first few scenes with the rats and snakes was slightly weak and the makers could’ve avoided it. But apart from these very minor flaws, and a few extra minutes, it’s a powerful movie, sure to remain in the conscience of the viewer for a while. The ‘criers’ will need tissues at the end.

‘Jai Bhim’ is the victory chant of the followers of BR Ambedkar, independent India’s first Minister of Law and Justice, a champion of the downtrodden who dreamed of an India free of caste. His dream unfortunately remains unfulfilled, but Suriya’s film is a fitting paean to the man and the real life lawyer K Chandru. It’s a 8.5/10 from me. The movie is on Amazon Prime.

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