Editor's note: Spoilers for the film Jai Bhim below.
Time and time again, we have seen countless examples of police brutality and lack of accountability for policing institutions. From India to the United States, systems of policing have often possessed enough institutional and financial support to remain immune to legal judgment. Jai Bhim, a recent Tamil language film from India explores these systems of policing through the lens of both the law and through the eyes of marginalized communities.
Unlike other films where police are often glorified heroes who work for the betterment of society, Jai Bhim switches the narrative to showcase a hero who is openly against the systems of policing. Throughout the film, there are references to Periyar, Marx, and Ambedkar, reminding the audience of the political relevance of the film.
But after watching the film, I’m left with one question — can we look to police and judiciary systems for actual justice and liberation?
Jai Bhim aims to bring Indian police brutality to light while discussing the ways it primarily affects oppressed-caste peoples. The courtroom drama starring actor Suriya, who plays (then-lawyer) Justice K. Chandru, is based on real events from 1993. The film focuses on lawyer Chandru’s dedication to a police brutality case involving an Irular man (the character of Rajakannu) beaten to death while in custody.
Rajakannu is arrested for a crime he did not commit and never returns home. The police claim he escaped custody and is on the run, however, Sengani, Rajakannu’s wife, suspects Rajakannu has been killed at the hands of the police. She finds a lawyer to help her find out what happened to her husband.
In the opening scene of the film, we see the way caste is used to decide which men will be accused of crimes they did not commit. When Sengani witnessed her husband and relatives brutally beaten in front of the police station, she and any bystanders were only able to helplessly watch in complete horror. Who could they call in the face of violence, when the law enforcement itself was responsible?
When I watched Jai Bhim, it reminded me that while judicial systems can be used as tools, they will never grant us power or liberation. Sengani and Chandru’s persistent efforts were constantly undermined by the police fabricating false evidence and witnesses to cover up their actions. The police had significantly more judicial support and powerful individuals protecting them, and were poised to win in any judicial battle, especially in cases against marginalized communities.
Despite the legal efforts depicted in the film, recorded police brutality against oppressed minorities persists over 30 years later. Torture while in judicial custody is widespread across India, and a 2019 report revealed that poor and marginalized groups constitute the majority of torture victims. The report also reveals that in almost all cases, police destroy evidence of torture by quickly cremating bodies.
It’s impossible to watch Jai Bhim and not be reminded of father and son P. Jeyaraj and J. Fenix who were tortured and killed in the custody of Thoothukudi police in June 2020. The policemen who committed these atrocities were only suspended or transferred departments thrive through their impunity.
In 2002, a Dalit woman, Karuppi, was falsely accused of theft and tortured in police custody for six days before she was killed. It was not until 2013 that the perpetrators faced any consequences.
It is clear to me that legal systems often work to protect the perpetrators. This systemic violence and oppression continues to this day and has not been resolved — despite the legal measures taken to bring justice.
There are instances where the systemic oppression of the Irula people are brought to light in Jai Bhim — the government office demeans the villagers when they ask for a ST certificate or try to vote, the dehumanizing laboring conditions endured by the Irula at the hands of upper-caste landowners, the constant threat and enactment of state violence. However, the film primarily centers the heroic lawyer of a single case rather than centering the people’s fight for liberation. Any organizing done in protest of police brutality was depicted as a montage of protesting crowds.
Jai Bhim spends a considerable amount of screen time on Chandru’s legal work and his quest to gather sufficient evidence for Sengani’s case. At the end of the movie, ‘justice’ only brought monetary settlements and a land grant, yet the climax of the movie is depicted as a legal success. Sengani says earlier in the film, “how could I possibly feed my child with the money given to me by the men who beat his father to death?”
However, her words are forgotten at the end of the film after the police officers are arrested and Sengani receives a house as compensation for her husband’s murder at the hand of the state. Jai Bhim is a reminder that liberation should lie within the people, not within the powerful systems that continue to feed off of our oppression. Legal systems work to protect the perpetrators, regardless of how many good lawyers exist.
In the end of Jai Bhim, the judge declares, “if the police and judiciary work together, the rights of the people will be upheld.”
But for so long, police and judiciary systems have worked hand in hand to protect perpetrators. None of this would’ve happened if marginalized people weren’t systematically oppressed by the police and a court that enables them in the first place. For me, justice requires the abolition of these institutions and restoring sovereignty to the people.