Jai Bhim

It took me a few weeks to watch this film as I just couldn’t get past the brutalisation of Rajakannu, Sengeni and their families by the police. However, it’s well worth sticking it out past the first hour as the film ends up as an excellent legal drama with superb performances from the entire cast. In particular, Lijomol Jose stands out as a tribal woman fighting for justice against an entire system which discriminates against her at every turn while Suriya excels in a more subdued role as the advocate fighting for justice.

The film starts with a demonstration of wanton discrimination with prisoners being selected to be charged with false cases based on their caste. It’s a short and callous scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film illustrating that there is no mercy and no justice for those who have no social standing or who cannot afford bribes. The film then moves to Rajakannu (Manikandan) and his family trapping rats for the local famers and catching snakes. Although they have been employed by the landowners to carry out this work, they are treated as vagabonds and ruffians, seemingly due to their poverty and inability to rise above their lowly status. The tribal people live in a vicious circle of being unable to obtain the rights other villagers take for granted as they cannot obtain documentation, without which they cannot vote, register for land or tribal grants and are therefore not seen as existing at all.

In the midst of all this callous and barbarous treatment, Rajakannu and Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) hope for a better life, dreaming of one day owning a brick house in the village. It’s somewhat ironic then that Rajakannu has to leave and work as a labourer making bricks while Sengeni is pregnant and stays at home to look after their daughter. However, a jewellery theft at the local headman’s house results in Rajakannu being accused of the crime after he was known to have been at the house to catch a snake, despite being nowhere in the vicinity at the time. As Rajakannu is away at the brick factory, his brother Iruttupan (M. Chinraasu), his sister Pachaiammal (Sujatha), his brother-in-law Mosakutty (Rajendran) and the very pregnant Sengeni are all taken to the police station and tortured to find out his whereabouts. Once they have Rajakannu, the two women are released, but the torture continues for Rajakannu and the other 2 men as the police, Sub-Inspector Gurumurthy (Tamizh), Constable Veerasamy (Supergood Subramani) and Constable Kirubakaran (Bala Hasan) try to beat a confession from them.

Arriving at the police station the next day, Sengeni is told that her husband Iruttupan and Mosakutty have all escaped, but there is no trace of them anywhere. Desperate, Sengeni enlists the help of Mythra (Rajisha Vijayan), an educated woman who has been teaching the adults to read and write. Mythra also struggles to make her voice heard, but on finding out about a lawyer who fights pro bono for human rights cases she enlists his help for Sengeni. Once Chandru (Suriya) takes the case, Sengeni finally has someone who is listening to her who will fight for her right to justice.

The first hour of the film is unforgivingly brutal and difficult to watch. The torture of the women and men is shown in enough detail to make for gruesome viewing, and it seems to be never-ending. In between the scenes of beating and torture, the general social injustice shown to the tribal people is also shockingly inhumane, particularly since it is shown to be so casual and ingrained with villagers who themselves are living quite poorly. It took a couple of attempts for me to get through this section of the film, as it really is quite horrific and depressing. Thankfully, once the court case starts, there is more optimism and despite the investigation team having to revisit the horrors of the men’s imprisonment and torture, there is respect for Sengeni and her determination to find out the truth. 

Chandru is assisted by IG Perumalsamy (Prakash Raj) who, despite his dislike of lawyers and support of police brutality, vows to conduct a fair and thorough investigation. As more and more corruption comes to light, Advocate General Ram Mohan (Rao Ramesh) takes over the police defence and attempts to get the case thrown out of court. Perhaps unrealistically, Chandru seems to have little difficulty in getting the judges to see his point of view. He is able to get time to conduct investigations and support for his questioning of witnesses without too much difficulty and his speeches in court are simple and to the point. The drama and suspense is kept for the investigation into what has happened to the 3 men, with Chandru racing across the countryside trying to find witnesses who can discredit the police story. There is also constant pressure on Sengeni to back down which includes more intimidation from the police as well as offers of large amounts of compensation if she will drop the case.

What makes this film for me is the strength and determination shown by Sengeni in the face of so many obstacles. Despite her lack of literacy and knowledge about the legal system, she is steadfast in her desire to find out the truth no matter how impossible it seems. Lijomol Jose is simply brilliant and her portrayal of Sengeni drives home the almost insurmountable challenges faced by someone of her status trying to challenge the state authority. She makes Sengeni’s love for her husband a natural extension of their family life together, and her terror while in the hands of the police, followed by her devastation when Rajakannu disappears is perfectly shown. The character of Sengeni comes alive in her capable hands and she invests the audience in her story at every step.

Suriya is also excellent, although his performance focuses more on Chandru’s determination for justice rather than on flowery court speeches or dramatic discoveries. There is little backstory and no explanation of why he so strongly supports human rights, but despite this he is credible as a lawyer and the more restrained performance suits the story. It also helps to focus attention on Sengeni and the police brutality as the key elements of the film. The contrast between his more humane approach and that of almost everyone else in the film, also emphasizes how endemic discrimination against people like Rajakannu and Sengeni is within the rest of society.  

Director T.J. Gnanavel wrote the screenplay which is based on a true story according to IMDb etc. (Rather annoyingly the subtitles didn’t translate any of the written material on screen, which I think covered this aspect of the film).  While the story is compelling, the overly long and frequently repeated scenes of police brutality and torture seemed unnecessary and at times almost voyeuristic. Perhaps Gnanavel was trying to shock his audience and drive home the issue of police violence, but for me they made the film difficult to watch as the torture scenes went on and on without any end in sight. What I found more shocking was the casual discrimination faced at every turn by the tribal people, something that had a more lasting and significant impact than all the violence shown in the police station because it was more realistic and believable. Despite these issues with the screenplay, the characterisations of the main characters are all excellent and once past the torture scenes the rest of the film works well. Issues of caste and social justice are often harrowing to watch but the overwhelming feeling from Jai Bhim is one of hope and resilience, despite the downbeat start to the film. The music from Sean Roldan is also emotive and fits well with the screenplay while S.R. Kathir’s cinematography impresses with his skill at framing and his contrast between the claustrophobic scenes in the police station and the light and air of the courtroom.

As I wrote at the start, this was a difficult film to watch, which I think was the point T.J. Gnanavel was trying to make. I’m not sure if this was the best approach for such an important subject and I’m sure that making the torture scenes shorter would still get the message across just as well without reducing the impact. If you can make it through the first hour, the rest of the film does impress. Not for the faint-hearted but well worth it for Suriya, Lijomol Jose and the rest of the excellent cast. 4 stars.

Tughlaq Durbar

With cinemas still closed here in Melbourne. I’ve just got round to watching Tughlaq Durbar online. Advertised as a political satire, the film is based on a good initial idea but the story fails to capitalise on this as well as expected. There is plenty of comedy that works well and Vijay Sethupathi is his usual charismatic self, but overall the film fails to engage especially in the second half. 

Singaravelan (Vijay Sethupathi) aka Singam is a fanatical follower of local politician Rayappan (Parthiban) and has been since birth. In fact, he was born during one of Rayappan’s political rallies, and this seems to have imbued the young Singam with a devotion to his leader that surpasses all other ties. Singam’s mother died shortly after giving birth to his sister, Manimegalai (Manjima Mohan) and after their father also dies, the pair are brought up by the local community. However, Singam’s fanaticism causes him to be cruel and unfeeling to his sister, and as a result she stops speaking to him – although it’s not clear if Singam even notices. The worst thing to note about Singam is that he also hates dogs, something that ensures that to me his character appears as black and evil as possible for a small-time political wannabe. 

Despite the best efforts of the party faithful, who have no time for the young upstart, Singam manages to ingratiate himself with Rayappan. After various shenanigans mainly manipulating Rayappan’s right hand man Managalam (Bhagavathi Perumal), Singam manages to be nominated as the candidate for his home area. However, an argument with Managalam at a party celebration results in Singam being hit on the head, with a rather unusual result. 

Somehow the head injury brings about a split personality with a ‘good’ Singam who loves his sister, likes dogs (already he’s won me over!) and is concerned about  the community, and the ‘normal’ Singam who is only interested in keeping Rayappan happy. I loved how this is shown on screen with Singam’s shadow gradually splitting as he walks down an alley way underneath flickering overhead lights. It makes it really clear what is happening, just as Singam’s sudden appreciation of dogs makes it clear that this is a completely different personality. I also appreciated that Singam develops a left eye blepharospasm when his personality shifts, and his best mate Vasu (Karunakaran) finds this a helpful indication of just when Singam is going to do something unexpected.

Having set the scene with a great idea and a couple of excellent segments where ‘good’ Singam takes over to thwart ‘normal’ Singam’s plans, writer/director Delhi Prasad Deenadayalan seems to run out of steam. Once Singam is nominated to run on the party ticket, the film turns into a rather plodding tale of stolen money and the usual corruption associated with politicians. I couldn’t decide if Deenadayalan was trying to make a statement with some of the rambling dialogues or if he just thought that every film based on politicians should make some mention of corruption. Some of the dialogue is brilliant such as that around Rayappan’s need for an unthinking fanatical follower who will do whatever is needed, or Singam’s response to his sister being abused at her workplace. But outside of the comedy, much of the rest is rote and repetitive. 

Particularly disappointing is the sidelining of Manimegalai, especially since she is apparently one of the reasons behind ‘good’ Singam’s plans for the area and a catalyst for change. There was so much more that could have been achieved using the relationship between the brother and sister but after a good start Manimegalai becomes nothing more than the symbol of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘normal’ Singam.

There is also a rather shaky romance with Kamatchi (Raashi Khanna), the daughter of a local money lender that Singam kidnaps for ransom. It’s mostly one-sided with Kamatchi falling for Singam except for 1 song which feels rather out of place with the switch to Singam mooning after Kamatchi. As the standard love interest, the character of Kamatchi is nothing more than a reason for a fight scene, or a way for Singam to get the money he needs.  Overall, it’s the comedy that works best in the film, with the story seemingly taking second place to the set-up of these comedic skits. Vijay Sethupathi, Parathiban and Karunakaran are excellent comedic actors, and all deliver good performances but the lack of a good story means that the film drags once the set up is done. However, Govind Vasantha’s songs and background score are good, especially the more upbeat political rallying number although none are particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and the lightening in particular is superb in many of the sequences adding to the distinction between the two versions of Singam. 

This should have been a much better film, with a good cast, novel idea and good comedic dialogue. But there is no emotional heart to the film, and without a good follow-up plot, good performances aren’t enough to make this anymore than a one-time watch. It’s not terrible, but the most disappointing part is that Tughlaq Durbar could have been so much more. 2.5 stars.

Jagame Thandhiram (2021)

I’ve been a fan of Karthik Subbaraj’s previous films, even his venture with Rajini, but he seems to miss the mark this time. Despite an excellent cast and some good ideas, Jagame Thandhiram fails to engage as it should, mainly due to its over 2 ½ hour run time. But there is also a clash of themes, with the first half of the film being a typically violent gangster film with flashes of comedy that doesn’t mix well with the political ideology and humanitarian motif in the second. The supposed redemption of the lead character is also problematic, but at least Dhanush has enough charm to induce a whiff of plausibility to the change.

The film sets the scene with a violent murder in the streets of London before moving back to Tamil Nadu and introducing a local rowdy Suruli (Dhanush). Suruli’s reputation is such that his bride prefers to leave him immediately after the ceremony rather than go through with the marriage, but when a London gang is looking for a murderer for hire, they decide that Suruli would be the ideal fit. Lured away from his parotta restaurant by the promise of vast sums of money, Suruli finds himself working for a white supremacist by the name of Peter (James Cosmo) while his childhood friend Vicky (Sharath Ravi) translates Peter’s demands. This actually works well as a device to show that we tend to hear what we want to hear and not what is actually being said. However, with so much else going on, the translation issue tends to get pushed to the background.

Peter’s target is a Tamil gangster Sivadoss (Joju George) who was behind the murder of one of Peter’s men in the opening scenes. Sivadoss is a smuggler, primarily trading in guns for gold, but he also is involved in assisting refugees to settle in the UK. As a bigoted anti-immigrant, Peter is violently opposed to immigration and decides to use a brown man, Suruli, to solve a brown man problem – Sivadoss. So far so good, with Peter’s over the top posturing not too unrealistic given similar behaviour has actually occurred far too frequently in real life recently. But just when everything seems to be settling in for a nicely violent gangster film, Karthik Subbaraj decides to introduce a secondary theme that ultimately derails the film.

On one of his outings with Vicky, Suruli spots Attilla (Aishwarya Lekshmi) who is singing in a bar. There follows the usual tired and very outdated love at first sight trope that really needs to be allowed to rest in peace, but at least Attilla does push back – at first anyway. The whole romance feels like a bad fit with the rest of the film, and more like a nod to appeal to a mass audience rather than a genuine attempt to add something different to the screenplay. But in the second half, Attilla shares her past which moves the story in a different direction although unfortunately, none of this proceeds in a way that fits with the previous storyline or is even slightly believable. Added to that, both leads look uncomfortable with each other, which ensures the romance never takes off either and makes the final point of using Attilla as Surali’s redemption a step too far that misses by a mile.

Although the story fails to deliver to Karthik Subbaraj’s usual standard, the cast mostly fit well into their roles. It’s just a shame they are all acting in a different film to each other. Dhanush has played this type of gangster film many times before and perhaps that’s why he seems less than thrilled with some of the scenes. The action sequences are great, but he seems as bemused by the romance as I was, and it’s really only the scenes where he is double-crossing anyone and everyone that genuinely come alive. Joju George and James Cosmo are both very good in their roles but of the two, Joju has the better role. The character of Peter is one-dimensional to a point that makes him almost a cartoon figure, while at least Sivadoss has more shades and better dialogue. The various other gang members are mostly interchangeable and superfluous with even Vicky being relegated to the background as the violence heats up. Aishwarya Lekshmi is totally wasted in a role that probably looked good on paper, but doesn’t work at all within the context of the rest of the film. 

What does work well are the action sequences which are beautifully choreographed and flow easily into the storyline. The music from Santhosh Narayanan is also good and the songs also fit well into the film. It was also good to see parts of London on screen and the usual chilly British weather ensuring everyone (apart from James Cosmo) looked suitably frozen in any outdoor scene. James Cosmo benefited from a rather warm looking coat and cashmere scarf and so looked much more comfortable, but then as a Scot is probably more used to the cold anyway! And if you’ve ever wondered how Scottish dancing would look with Tamil music, wonder no more.

Jagame Thandhiram could have been a really good gangster film, or a really good refugee film, but it can’t be both. The combination storyline makes for an overly long running time and the two halves never gel together. As a result Suruli’s character is also problematic, having made too many bad decisions in the first half for any of the events in the second to ring true. There are lots of good ideas, but for once Karthik Subbaraj fails to bring them all together and the usual deliciously wicked humour is totally missing. Perhaps if it had been a 4 episode web series it might have had the space required to fully develop the story, but even with two and a half hours, there just isn’t enough time to make it work here. 2½ stars.