Casteists vs artists: Controversy surrounds Tamil film "Jai Bhim"

“Jai Bhim”, a gripping Tamil film portraying a tribal woman’s fight for justice, is in the eye of a storm after coming under attack by casteist and right-wing forces.

Published : Dec 02, 2021 06:00 IST

A promotional poster  of “Jai Bhim”.

A promotional poster of “Jai Bhim”.

A controversy rages in Tamil Nadu over Jai Bhim , a film based on the true story of a tribal woman’s ordeal after her husband was killed in police custody in the 1990s and a young lawyer whose relentless struggle secured justice for her.

Leaders of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a regional party that claims to represent the interests of the Vanniyars, who belong to the Most Backward Classes (MBC), and right-wing zealots are up in arms against the film, which was released on an over-the-top (OTT) platform on November 1. Their reactions, aimed at whipping up emotions, and brazen attempts to intimidate the film’s director T.S. Gnanavel and the lead actor, Suriya, who is also its producer, have shocked the State.

This intense film narrates the poignant story of a lawyer, who fights to secure justice for a tribal woman whose husband is falsely implicated in a theft case and later murdered in police custody. The film opened to rave reviews and even emerged as the highest-rated film on the IMDb website, an Internet movie database.

At the heart of the controversy is a scene from the film that shows a 1995 calendar displaying the “agni gundam” (vessel of fire), a symbol of the Vanniyar Sangam, the PMK’s parent organisation, in the house of the sub-inspector who murders the tribal youth in custody.

After the issue was flagged on social media, the film crew immediately changed the controversial calendar with one displayng a Hindu goddess within a week of the film’s release. The director and the lead actor told mediapersons repeatedly that they had no intention of hurting any individual or any community.

PMK takes offence

However, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, son of PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss and the party’s youth wing leader, said on Twitter that the film had offended the Vanniyar community by implying that the murderous sub-inspector was a Vanniyar. He said that everyone knew that the “real name of the police officer was Anthonysamy, who was not a Vanniyar”.

In the film, the sub-inspector is named Gurumurthy, a name similar to that of former Vanniyar Sangam leader J. Gurunathan, alias ‘Kaduvetti’ Guru. Anbumani said: “These changes are highly condemnable.”

Anbumani, a former Union Minister, asked why the film-makers had changed the name of only the sub-inspector when they had retained the real names of characters such as the former Madras High Court judge Justice K. Chandru, who fought the case when he was a lawyer, the then Inspector General Perumalsamy, whose investigation exposed police high-handedness, and the tribal victim Rajakannu, who was murdered in police custody.

He said that no one had the right to demean a community under the ruse of artistic freedom and issued a note of caution to Suriya, saying: “It is not only for you but for all those who have the intentions of doing it. If you continue to exhibit your hatred, people will express their anger whenever your films are released and screened in theatres.” He also asked the actor on Twitter to express “apology or regret” for the scene, in the process igniting a row that led to belligerent responses from casteist forces against the film.

Also read: Politics of ban

Suriya gave a a Twitter reply that was courteous and firm at once, saying that the scene in question had been changed, which Anbumani was well aware of. He said that he and the film crew had no intention of insulting any caste or any individual. He also said that the film was not a documentary and that its main objective was to start a debate in society about the functioning of the system that did not protect the poor and disadvantageed.

Suriya said: “Instead of raising questions against the shortcomings of the system, which the movie wished to, the focus has now been restricted to the domain of ‘name politics’. While we understand your view that no one should abuse their freedom, similarly you too should accept that none must threaten an artist’s freedom.”

He told him that all should continue to travel in their own respective paths, implying that such interference in a work of art was unsolicited.

Legal notice

Stung by this sharp reply, the Vanniyar Sangam sent a legal notice to Suriya, his wife and actor Jyotika, Gnanavel, and 2D Entertainment Private Limited, the company owned by Suriya and Jyotika which produced the film, besides Amazon, on which the film was screened, seeking a unconditional apology and a compensation of Rs.5 crore. It also filed a criminal petition against them before the Judicial Magistrate in Chidambaram.

The notice asked the film crew to “cease and desist from making or publishing any false, malicious and defamatory remarks against the community and its people”. It charged that the film was made with a “malafide intention of defaming the image and reputation of the entire Vanniyar community”.

Besides, PMK lawyer K. Balu, who sent the legal notice on behalf of the Vanniyar Sangam, sent a separate letter to the Union government to not consider the film for any award or recognition, since it had “hurt the sentiments of a caste and its people in Tamil Nadu”.

The PMK took the issue to a new low when Sithamalli Palanisamy, the party’s Mayiladuthurai district secretary, announced that anyone who “kicked Surya” would be rewarded with Rs.1 lakh. However, the Tamil Nadu Police slapped four cases against him. R. Arul, the PMK legislator representing Salem West, urged theatre owners in Salem to not screen any Suriya films. Neither Dr Ramadoss nor Dr Anbumani condemned these acts of indecency and intimidation.

Justice K. Chandru said that the initial legal notice sent on behalf of the Vanniyar Sangam threatened to sue the film production team seeking a compensation of Rs.5 crore and also file a criminal defamation case under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

However, he said, only a private complaint under Section 200 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) was filed in Chidambaram, seeking prosecution of the director and the producers for offences under Sections 153 (1), 153A, 499, 503 and 504 of the IPC.

The legal notice dated November 15, 2021, issued by the lawyer demanded removal of the “agni gundam” imagery from the film, an unconditional apology from the team and a promise to desist from publishing any more false and defamatory remarks against the Vanniyar community.

Justice Chandru said: “Under Section 203 of the CrPC, the Magistrate will have to apply his mind and record that there was sufficient ground to issue processes to the producers who are shown as accused. It must be noted that the film starts with the announcement that the story was based on a true incident involving the lock-up death of tribal youth Rajakannu. However, all the characters shown in the film are fictional. Under these circumstances, it will be doubtful whether the Magistrate will take up the complaint on record and issue processes.”

Artistic freedom

He quoted the Supreme Court judgment relating to the case of the actor Khushbu Sundar (2010): “We are of the view that the institution of the numerous criminal complaints against the appellant was done in a mala fide manner. In order to prevent the abuse of the criminal law machinery, we are therefore inclined to grant the relief sought by the appellant. In such cases, the proper course for Magistrates is to use their statutory powers to direct an investigation into the allegations before taking cognizance of the offences alleged.”

The court also said: “It is not the task of the criminal law to punish individuals merely for expressing unpopular views. The threshold for placing reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression is indeed a very high one and there should be a presumption in favour of the accused in such cases. It is only when the complainants produce materials that support a prima facie case for a statutory offence that Magistrates can proceed to take cognizance of the same. We must be mindful that the initiation of a criminal trial is a process which carries an implicit degree of coercion and it should not be triggered by false and frivolous complaints, amounting to harassment and humiliation to the accused.”

Also read: Censorship and the State

Justice Chandru told Frontline that he was glad that the complainants had taken the issue to the court and that “only legal reasoning would be entertained there and no flexing of muscles would be involved”.

The PMK lawyer Balu said that they would file a case seeking compensation in the Madras High Court shortly. Unlike the controversies involving other films, the issue surrounding Jai Bhim has seen communal forces rushing in to condemn the film. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an ally of the PMK, has not issued any official statement in this connection, several right-wing forces jumped into the fray against the film and its crew.

Many casteists and Hindutva zealots, including the BJP’s H. Raja, have criticised the film.

Dalit leader Dr K. Krishnaswamy, founder of the Puthiya Tamilagam, also a BJP ally, said that film-makers should behave responsibly. He said: “The Tamil film Komban was released after altering the dialogues at 72 places after legal intervention.”

Despite the clarifications from the director and the lead actor, the issue has not been allowed to rest.

But the film has received widespread support from viewers and even from unexpected quarters. For instance, the gram sabha of Arunkulam village in Chengalpattu district, which sat for a special meeting, passed a resolution in support of Suriya and the film crew. The sabha urged the government to initiate action against those who issued threats to the actor.

Support from film industry

Several film personalities, including directors such as Bharathiraja, T. Rajendar, Vetrimaaran, Ameer, and Pa. Ranjith, expressed their solidarity with Suriya and the Jai Bhim team and asked political parties and leaders to not interfere in film-making.

Bharathiraja wrote a letter to Dr Anbumani, in which he said that while watching a film based on a real-life incident, one should consider whether it had benefited society. He said: “If one wears a magnifier with an intention to find fault, then nothing will be possible.”

He also said that when he directed the Tamil film Vedam Puthithu , which became controversial as it talked about caste supremacy issues, actor and former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran stood by him.

Bharathiraja said: “If you see the film as a creative art, then you and your father will realise that it is also a film about the struggle of the underprivileged.”

Lauding Suriya’s efforts, Bharathiraja said that it would set a wrong precedent if Suriya were projected as being opposed to one particular caste. He said: “Let your voice be heard in issues such as reservation. Leave out cinema. We [directors and actors] are afraid whether our creators need to wait with their screenplays at the doorsteps of each and every politician to get their nods.”

Also read: Fear of ideas

K. Balakrishnan, secretary of the Tamil Nadu State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that the film talked about the long struggle for justice in which the CPI (M) functionaries and cadres had played a major role. He said: “It is a warning against such a systemic violence in future.”

Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and Member of Parliament, said that the film exposed the state’s brutality against the disadvantaged in an honest manner, adding that the film had created a debate in the public space on vital social issues.

PMK’s history of violence

The PMK has a long history of violence. It was born after a violent agitation the late 1980s demanding classification of the Vanniyar community as an MBC. More than 20 people were killed in the course of the agitation. The party and its leadership are well aware that numerous judgments by the higher judiciary, including the Supreme Court, have safeguarded artistic freedom. But the growing fear of becoming irrelevant in electoral politics has resulted in the party trying to remain in the limelight by picking up such issues and identifying the Tamil film industry as a soft target.

On earlier occasions, it criticised cinema and film stars such as Rajinikanth for “spoiling Tamil youths” and targeted the actor Vijaykanth, mainly because he was popular among Vanniyar youth.

It has also strongly opposed inter-caste marriages and fomented tension between Vanniyars and Dalits, which resulted in largescale violence against Dalits in several cases, most notably in Dharmapuri district in 2012 in the Elavarasan-Divya case (“Caste fury”, Frontline , December 14, 2012).

Some 15 years ago, the party had unleashed violence against the actor Khushbu Sundar for her interview in a Tamil magazine on Tamil women and chastity. She was harassed by the party’s functionaries, who filed numerous complaints and hauled her before various subordinate courts across the State. When she came to attend one such case at a court in Mettur in Salem district, they hurled footwear and rotten tomatoes at her. Later, the Supreme Court dismissed all these frivolous cases against her.

Jai Bhim is an honest portrayal of a tribal woman’s struggle. It boldly addresses a serious social and structural flaw that allows violence against the voiceless and recognises those who worked for the marginalised in real life.

The film is also likely to catapult Suriya to new heights of glory. A director said: “If you experiment with creativity, you cannot stay away from facing such controversies.” Today, the drama unfolding outside Jai Bhim is more riveting than the film itself. But Suriya remains strong and unfazed.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment