Image via Jai Bhim trailer on Amazon Prime

The Power of Persistent Presence in 'Jai Bhim'

A person’s persistent presence can be a powerful thing; particularly the presence of vulnerable, poor persons who don’t have anything else to put on the line except their bodies as they seek justice.

Jai Bhim, the recent majorly successful Indian film demonstrates the struggle, beauty, and power of such persistent presence of justice-seeking persons. Two worlds collide in the film — a world of beauty and the world of violence. Through their persistent presence, justice-seeking persons challenge us to embrace a world of beauty despite the cruel force of worlds of violence.

Jai Bhim begins with a beautiful portrayal of the Irular people of Tamil Nadu before institutionalized casteism turns things ugly. Irulars are officially classified as Scheduled Tribes (STs) and are alternatively called Adivasis (“first peoples” or Indigenous peoples). The posters promoting the film portray Chandru, the dominant caste lawyer in the film who stands in solidarity with the widow of state-sanctioned victim of police brutality and takes up the case pro-bono. For me, however, the real protagonist of the film is Sengani, the Irular woman, who keeps showing up in public — at the police station, on the street, in the courts, in lawyer’s offices — until she gets justice for her wrongly framed and murdered husband, Rajakannu.

I want to be careful not to uncritically glorify the persistent presence of justice-seeking persons such as Sengani because those on the margins are often not considered as persons at all.

As part of my fieldwork during graduate education, I stayed in a Dalit hamlet of a Telugu village. In a typical south Indian village/town, bodies are segregated by land according to caste-based hierarchy. Although Dalit hamlets are very much part of the village, when one uses the word “village” in the local vernacular, its meaning can be layered, referring only to that part of the village where dominant caste persons live. In dominant caste understanding, the “village proper,” by definition, excludes Dalit bodies. In other words, it is possible to describe a “village” without any reference to Dalits who also live in it, as if they don’t count.

The part where Dalits live is separated by a tract of land from the area where dominant caste communities reside. So, when I walked one morning from the “Dalit side” of the village to the “main side” to run some errands, a dominant caste shop keeper, upon knowing where I was staying and having no clue that I am Dalit, asked me with a straight face, “Why are you staying with them?”

For this shopkeeper, Dalits did not count. In such commonly encountered cruel dominant caste imagination, some persons are so “other” that they become non-persons.

In Jai Bhim, Rajakannu is beckoned to the home of a dominant caste landlord. A cobra is hiding in the landlord’s house and everyone is scared. Rajakannu, however, works with the fact that the cobra is as scared as everyone else and picks it up, compassionately pets it, and releases the snake into the wild. He refuses payment for his service, highlighting that the landlord’s wife is from his village. Upon hearing this — that is, the reference to belonging to the same place — revulsion overcomes the woman. She shouts, “From your village?!… since when is your place part of the village?” This is what I mean when I say that those on the margins are often not considered as persons at all. They are rendered invisible.

But there is a cruel irony captured in the film. Members of the Irula community are “needed” as scapegoats to “solve” (in other words, be wrongly framed for someone else’s crimes) “pending cases” by the police. The request is granted by state officials. The audience hears a most frightening and cruel aside, “Like anyone will question it!” Those rendered invisible daily in the local economy, are suddenly made hyper-visible for scapegoating and wrongful blame. Rajakannu joins this list of previously-invisible-and-suddenly hyper-visible persons and is taken to the police station and murdered in custody for refusing to accept the crime after a series of brutal tortures. His body is silently taken away in the middle of the night and dumped at the state border, with the presumption that no one will care.

But Sengani cares. In the beginning of the movie, while a group of Irulars are smoking a rat hole to trap rats, Sengani is tasked with catching the rats as they come out. Sengani lets a baby rat run free to the irritation of others. Viewers are presented with a Sengani who cares for all sentient life. How much more she will care for Rajakannu, the love of her life? Sengani continuously resists the silence of a state that pretends not to know what happened to Rajakannu. When Sengani makes progress due to her persistence, the state puts pressure on Sengani to be silent and stay in her place without probing and questioning. And yet, Sengani persists. The power of Sengani’s persistence is a source of inspiration for those on the margins to keep on keeping on.

As much as Sengani’s story is an inspiration, we must simultaneously remember that persistent presence is not always acknowledged by dominant forces. News of the Khairlanji murders of 2006 in which members of a Dalit family were killed by a dominant caste mob might not have gathered the national and international attention it did if Dalit persons did not put their bodies on the line and interrupted the cruel ordinariness with which the rest of the world seemed to keep moving. This example and so many more leave me with one question — what better worlds might we create if we allowed the persistence presence of those on the margins of power to interrupt our lives and ignite our imagination and efforts?