Watching Amazon Prime’s recent Indian film Jai Bhim, I kept thinking how much it resembled earlier American films and TV I had seen depicting racial injustice. From To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) through Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014) to Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Netflix’s 10 episodes of Seven Seconds (2018), we have been reminded of the ugly stain of racism that continues to plague our nation.
And indeed it is fitting that a film set in India in the 1990s reminds us of Selma and its significance for Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. For Gandhi, who was assassinated in India in 1948, was one of King’s heroes and role models.
Jai Bhim should also remind us that the denial of minority rights has not just been a U.S. issue. It is also a global one. The WWI Armenian Genocide in Turkey, Hitler’s Holocaust of Jews and other minorities in WWII, Stalin’s arrest and deportation of Crimean Tatars and other nationalities in WWII, and more recently China’s imprisoning of the minority Uighur people in concentration camps and prisons, and Myanmar’s forcing hundreds of thousands of their Rohingya minority to flee to neighboring Bangladesh--all of these instances are just some of the many examples that could be cited over the past century plus.
The Indian film itself is excellent (highest ranked film in the IMDb database) and based on a real-life court case that occurred in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India in 1993. (There were then 25 Indian states plus a smaller number of union territories.) In this southern state of India, a man named Rajakannu was beaten and killed by police, who then covered up the murder until a lawyer, OK Chandru (played by leading Indian actor Suriya), went to court in behalf of Rajakannu’s pregnant wife, called Sengeni in the movie.
Although the film’s director, TJ Gnanavel, takes some artistic liberties—for example, Rajakannu’s tribe is changed from the Kurava to the Irula because that latter are even more victimized in India—it mirrors real events pretty well.
Most of the last hour of this two-and-a-half-hour film is set in an Indian High Court or in flashbacks depicting occurrences mentioned, but I’ll leave it to readers to watch for themselves the judges’ final decision. In lawyer Chandru we have the classic good-guy--he charges no fee for taking on the the Rajakannu case and battling an evil and corrupt, but powerful, state justice and police apparatus. The Tamil Nadu state advocate general, Ram Mohan, leads the opposing team of lawyers who defend and cover up the police killing of Rajakannu.
As in films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the Greek classic Z (1969), or Marshall (2017), we root for the good seeker (or seekers) of justice to triumph over a corrupt political/police force.
But Jai Bhim also reminds us that we should not damn all police officers and officials, that there are many who are trying to do the best they can in an incredibly difficult job. In the film it is a member of the “establishment,” Inspector-General of Police Perumalsamy, who cooperates with Chandru and in the end testifies against the police.
Like in the USA, racism and social injustice in India involve various groups. We have had our Native Americans, Afro Americans, and other minorities (such as Jewish Americans as BlacKkKlansman reminds us). In India, there were for centuries the Untouchables, who were considered so vile that higher class people didn’t wish to go anywhere near them.
Although the Indian constitution of 1950 abolished “untouchability,” discrimination and oppression against the untouchables (more recently referred to as Dalits) continued, especially in rural areas, where more than four-fifths of them lived. Laws aimed at protecting them were often not enforced. A Human Rights Watch report of 1999 indicated that the centuries-long oppression of them was far from over.
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Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoy the state's protection. In what has been called India’s “hidden apartheid,” entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. . . .
. . . “Untouchables” may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. . . . Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education. . . . Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors.
As the early part of Jai Bhim depicts, the Irulas are primarily a rural people and specialize in snake and rat catching. Both the Kurava and the Irula tribes (the actual and film ones the police-murdered Rajakannu belonged to) are now considered Scheduled Tribes. As of the 2011 census, such tribes made up about 8.6 percent of India's population. Scheduled Castes make up another 16.6 percent of India's population of 1.25 billion (according to the 2011 census). In other words such “scheduled” (and victimized-by-prejudice) people exist in numbers roughly equal to the entire U.S. population.
As in the USA with President Lyndon Johnson’s Affirmative Action policies, India made some attempts to compensate for past mistreatment of minorities by initiating affirmative-action-like policies. In the early 1990s India’s government began implementing a policy of reserving a percentage of government jobs for “backward classes.” But, as in the USA, there was serious opposition to such policies, and widespread discrimination continues to exist.
That members of both the Kurava and the Irula tribes continue to be victimized is attested to by contemporary evidence. One can view, for example, the report of “Police Atrocities against Kuravan Community, Tamil Nadu”(2016) or about the 2021 occurance of three Irula men being “allegedly abducted, beaten and urinated upon” by a mob infuriated by the marriage between a Irula man” and a higher caste woman.
One of the interesting aspects of lawyer Chandru’s life and motivation is his indebtedness to Marxist ideas. Attracted to them as a youth, he joined India’s Communist Party (Marxist) [CPM] in 1968 and remained a member until the late 1980s. Even after leaving the party, however, Marxist ideas continued to influence him--in Jai Bhim a photo of Karl Marx is depicted in Chandru’s office.
While there is little doubt that Marx was wrong at times and often too dogmatic, faults also often manifested by various Marxist parties since his death in 1883, his reflections on capitalism, class conflict, and governments were often insightful. Take, for example, this gem from a Marx work of 1844, foreseeing the development of modern capitalist advertising: “Every product is a bait with which to entice the essence of the other, his money. Every real or potential need is a weakness. . . . every need is an opportunity for stepping up to one's neighbor in sham friendship and saying to him: ‘Dear friend, I can give you want . . . but you know the terms. You know which ink you must use in signing yourself over to me. I shall cheat you while I provide your pleasure.’ He places himself at the disposal of his neighbor's most depraved fancies, panders to his needs, excites unhealthy appetites in him, and pounces on every weakness, so that he can then demand the money.”
Of course, Marx was not the only influence on Chandru. Very different than Marx, the radical M. Gandhi led a life of protest, helping drive the British out of India to achieve its independence. Like Gandhi, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) helped expel the British. And he was instrumental in drawing up independent India’s first constitution. The reviewed film here’s title, Jai Bhim, means "Long Live Bhim" and was a greeting and slogan used by his followers. Like Gandhi he opposed discrimination against the untouchables.
In a recent interview, the still living Chandru was reminded that he once wrote a book titled My Judgments in the Light of Ambedkar and was asked, “Are you a Marxist or an Ambedkarite? Or, both?” His answer: “Whatever tag you want to attribute to me, I am certainly not a dogmatist.”
One of the delights of watching Jai Bhim was in seeing a non-dogmatist with a strong, ardent antipathy to prejudice and discrimination ceaselessly battle for truth and justice. (See here for my thoughts on dogmatism.) Nearing the end of 2021, with truth and justice still under strong attack from those polluted by Trumpism, we need such incouragement so as to keep waging the good fight.
Walter G. Moss