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.

Sarileru Neekevvaru

Anil Ravipudi’s latest film Sarileru Neekevvaru is an odd mix of action and comedy that individually are fine but which don’t gel together particularly well. On the plus side, Mahesh Babu is excellent, Vijayashanti is an absolute standout and Prakash Raj is back to doing what he does best as a nasty and vindictive villain. It’s an entertaining film but for me could have been better if Anil Ravipudi had stuck to just one idea and made 2 movies instead. 

The film opens with Bharati (Vijayashanti) establishing her no-nonsense persona by slapping a drunk and obnoxious student in her class before moving northwards to introduce Major Ajay Krishna (Mahesh Babu), a bomb disposal expert in the army. After setting a rather somber tone with Ajay in front of the Indian flag, the film takes an abrupt turn into comedy as Ajay is called to defuse a bomb but insists on his side-kick Shiv Prasad (Rajendra Prasad) brewing him a cup of coffee first. Then just as quickly things turn serious again as Ajay shoots the bomber dead after a short chase through the streets. It’s this jerky transition between comedy and action that makes it difficult to connect with the film as the emotional changes are too sudden to be anything other than jarring, even though each works well for that particular scene.

Bharati’s son Ajay is also a soldier in Major Ajay’s team, but when he is seriously injured in action, Major Ajay goes to visit Bharati to try and break the news sometime during her daughter’s wedding. This is another scene that doesn’t sit well, as it seems quite unlikely that this would actually happen in real life, given that there was no need to keep the incident secret. It also seemed an unlikely use of resources to send a bomb expert away to a wedding when his talents were so clearly needed by the army. It’s obvious at this stage where the film is going to go since Major Ajay is an orphan, but the whole set-up is too filmi and contrived to fit naturally into the story.

On the train the film switches back into comedy as Ajay meets Samskruthi (Rashmika Mandanna) and her crazy family. Samskruthi is desperate not to marry her father’s choice of a groom and enlists her two sisters and her mother (Sangeetha Krish) in every more ridiculous schemes to find an alternate husband. Most of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but some portions are simply inappropriate and not at all amusing – there is nothing funny about rape or domestic violence for instance. However I enjoyed watching the heroine stalk the hero for a change, even if it is clumsily set up. Rashmika is good in these comedy sequences, but I kept wishing that I just wish that Samskruthi had been less of a loosu ponnu caricature and had more to do than just chase after Ajay. I’ve seen Rashmika in a few films now and she is an excellent actress so it’s a real shame that she doesn’t have more to do here, especially in the second half. The best comedy actually comes from Sangeetha as Samskruthi’s mother. She has some of the funniest facial expressions and excellent comedic timing throughout, even making her oft-repeated line about being married off at 14 years of age much funnier that it really should be.

It is odd that Samskruthi is such a poorly realised character since Anil Ravipudi proves he can write a good female role with Bharati. Vijayashanti is superb here and her defiance of MLA Nagendra Reddy (Prakash Raj) is very well written. I really like how she is a strong and confident woman who has managed to raise her family, maintain a farm and teach medicine as a single parent. Her confrontations with Nagendra Reddy work well, and her gradual adoption of Ajay seems plausible given her overall character. It’s good to see someone other than the hero get the chance to fight back, and even though she then relies on Ajay to ‘rescue’ her, Bharati still gets stuck in when she needs to. 

There are a number of brief appearances from CinemaChaat favourites including Ajay as one of Nagendra Reddy’s thugs, and Subbaraju as Crime Branch Koti; an investigator who becomes involved when a number of murders are discovered relating to Nagendra Reddy. Rao Ramesh appears as Samskruthi’s long suffering father and Jayaprakash Reddy is excellent as Nagendra Reddy’s father who has very clear ideas about how to get rid of any opposition. The mix of comedy and action works better in the scenes with Prakash Raj and his various thugs, although there is still the odd serious note that appears to break the flow of the film. Part of this harks back to Ajay being in the army, and he repeatedly brings up the fact that soldiers are at the border defending the country against attack, while politicians feather their nests and don’t look after the people they are meant to represent. It’s a fair point, but I don’t think comparing the army to the politicians works as well as Anil Ravipudi may have wished. I can see what he’s getting at, but I don’t think that bringing the army into the discussion is necessary to point out why Nagendra Reddy and his counterparts are bad men.

The film itself is well put together with fantastic action sequences while Mahesh looks fighting fit and appropriately athletic throughout. The comedy sequences too are well put together, and it’s mainly the melding of these components that seems to have been skipped. Sarileru Neekevvaru works as a better than average Mahesh movie thanks to the strong supporting cast and a reasonable storyline, but it could have been just that little bit better if either the comedy had been toned down or the action made less heavy-handed. It’s still a worthwhile watch and worth it for Mahesh, Vijayashanti and Prakash Raj.

Bombay

Bombay is the second of Mani Ratnam’s ‘terrorist trilogy’, and is the one that I find the most disturbing. I remember the news reports from the real-life events that happened in Bombay in 1992 which are recreated here in authentic detail, and I find the violence here more confronting and realistic, despite a rather romanticised ending. In Bombay, Mani Ratnam juxtaposes a ‘forbidden’ romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman with the Bombay riots to create a compelling and disturbing look at the religious divide in India. The film shows how prejudice can drive extreme acts of hatred but also includes the counter ideals of selflessness and acceptance with an almost fairy-tale spin on good and evil. It’s another stunning film from Mani Ratnam that still makes an impact to-day and along with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack deserves all the awards and recognition that it has achieved over the years since its 1995 release.

The story starts with Shekhar (Arvind Swami) returning home to visit his family in a river-side village in Tamil Nadu. Just as Shekhar arrives he sees Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) and instantly he falls in love. Luckily the attraction is mutual and despite their different religions, a romance begins to grow between the two. Shekhar has been studying journalism in Bombay, which gives him a city sophistication and an intolerance for his father’s prejudiced views. Narayanan Pillai (Nassar) is a devout Hindu whose worst fear seems to be that his son will marry a bride from the North of India, since he is unable to imagine the horror of a daughter-in-law from a different religion. Shaila’s family is just as appalled by the thought of Shekhar and her father Basheer (Kitty) quickly arranges a marriage for his wayward daughter when he finds out about the affair. The clandestine nature of the romance allows for some beautiful camera work from Rajiv Menon and we also get the beautiful Kannalanae as Shaila spots Shekhar at a wedding.

I’ve read that Mani Ratnam wanted these scenes to be beautiful as a contrast to events in the second half, and I find it interesting that his idea of beauty is in the wind and rain that are a constant presence in the village. For me, accustomed to the weather in Ireland, I’d thought that this was supposed to represent the cold attitude of the two families to the romance until I read Baradwaj Rangan’s interview with Mani Ratnam. In Ireland, wind and rain is always cold and miserable, but since visiting Tamil Nadu I can appreciate why gusts of wind and showers of rain would be beautiful in a hot and often dry landscape. Despite knowing this, I still feel chilled when I see the wind whipping Shaila’s veil and skirt around, while the crashing waves and constant rain strike me as cold and gloomy even though I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

At the same time, coming from Northern Ireland, where it was just as taboo for a Catholic and a Protestant to start a relationship, I can really relate to the problem faced by Shekhar and Shaila; another reason why I find this film so confronting. The attitudes and expectations of society resonate closely to my own experiences growing up surrounded by religious intolerance and I am always thankful that my own family had a more progressive attitude. It does mean that I can understand their predicament here, and to some extent why their families are so worried as well. Beyond their own antipathy to the relationship there is the worry that society will condemn both Shaila and Shekhar, leading to ostracism and a continual risk to their safety.

With their families at loggerheads, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay. They quickly get married and before long have two twin boys Kabir Narayan (Master Harsha) and Kamal Basheer (Master Hriday). The boys are named for their respective grandfathers but are brought up in both religions, while Shekhar and Shaila are easily accepted in their neighbourhood despite their ‘mixed’ marriage. But when the Babri Masjid is demolished and riots break out across Bombay, the boys are lost in the city alone. They are caught by a gang of men who terrorise the children, pouring petrol over them and starting to set them alight in a shocking scene full of religious intolerance and hatred. These are two young boys with no idea what religion is, let alone the differences between Hindus and Muslims, and with their brutalisation, Mani Ratnam exposes the full horror of the riots and the absolute inhumanity of the rioters.

While relations between the communities in Bombay are breaking down, Narayanan and Basheer have gradually turned their enmity into a guarded tolerance, so when both travel to Bombay in the wake of the December riots, they are able to live with Shekhar and Shaila without too much trouble. As the violence continues in the city, their relationship continues to improve as they realise the extremism and intolerance doesn’t reflect either of their own beliefs.

Some of the most powerful scenes here show Shekhar interviewing the religious and political leaders and asking them when the riots will stop, but no-one seems able or even willing to try and bring peace. As riots again grip the city and neighbourhoods are set on fire, the family is torn apart once more with Shekhar and Shaila left to tour the hospitals and mortuaries in their search for Kabir and Kamal. Meanwhile the boys find kindness from unlikely places as Bombay slowly begins to return to normal.

The film has graphic scenes of the violence and does not spare the audience any of the horror associated with the riots and the aftermath. The scene of bodies in the morgue is particularly bleak, even though Mani Ratnam doesn’t explicitly show grieving families – he doesn’t need to. The anguish and despair come through clearly as Shekhar staggers through room after room of bodies, men women and children, Hindu and Muslim, all mixed together, in a terrible reminder that this is the real cost of the riots. Although some of the scenes here do feel rather contrived, such as when Shekhar confronts two of his friends who are fighting on opposite sides, many more appear authentic, painting a picture of neighbour against neighbour with the main casualties being the innocent bystanders. When the police enter the picture (including Prakash Raj as Inspector Kumar) the level of violence seems to jump yet again, and the images of Kabir and Kamal hiding from the authorities are powerful reminders of the political aspects to these events.

The romance is beautifully told with plenty of symbolism in the images of sheets of rain separating Shekhar from his family, and Shaila losing her abaya as she runs towards Shekhar and freedom. The second half is brutally realistic but still has beautiful scenes of the family together and the developing relationship between Narayanan and Basheer. Rajiv Menon’s cinematography is excellent and A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack perfectly complements the visuals while Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva ensure that the dance numbers are equally spectacular.

Arvind Swami is excellent in a role that requires him to switch from a love-struck young man to a desperate and terrified one as he searches the streets for his children. His emotions are clear and easy to read, particularly in the second half when he begins to realise the political manipulations that are behind the riots. His fear and desperation as he searches for his children are frighteningly realistic while his disgust at the politicians, religious leaders and the rioters themselves also comes across well. Manisha Koirala too is wonderful in her role, and brings plenty of emotion to her character at every stage. Although she looks fragile, her character has plenty of determination and a fierce capacity to fight back when necessary. I love her performance here as she conveys so much without words, letting her expression say everything instead. The support cast are all good too, and Nassar and Kitty steal the show whenever they are on screen together. Their initial animosity and then gradual acceptance help to ground the film and stop it becoming too overly emotional as well as providing some mild comedy that also helps to lighten the atmosphere.

Overall, Bombay is a beautifully made film that takes on both a societal issue and a horrific subject to make strong and compelling political and social statements. Mani Ratnam does hammer home the manipulation message rather forcefully, and the final scenes are a little too simplistic, especially after all the drama that has come before, but despite these few issues, the film still delivers a powerful message that continues to resonate, even all these years later. It’s a disturbing film but that’s what makes it such essential viewing. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars.