For justice to be served, the law has to sometimes be ignored, the Inspector General of Police in Tamil Nadu tells a human rights lawyer in Jai Bhim. The police officer narrates an anecdote about how, rather than following the rulebook to prevent the harassment of a schoolgirl, he crushed the perpetrator’s fingers instead.

In this film, Suriya plays the lawyer. But in another era, he may have been the policeman springing to the defence of the defenceless by breaking the law he is sworn to protect. As the fans know, the anecdote is a direct reference to the police drama Kaakha Kaakha, one of Suriya’s biggest hits.

The police officers whom Suriya’s advocate Chandru seeks to prosecute in Jai Bhim are the realistic iterations of the vigilante supercops whom the movies adore. Suriya played one of them in the Singam films, which were remade in Hindi.

Tha Se Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, which has been released on Amazon Prime Video, is based on an actual incident that took place in Cuddalore in 1993. The movie joins such recent Tamil productions as Vetri Maaran’s Visaranai and Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan in spotlighting the extreme vulnerability of marginalised groups to police harassment, wrongful incarceration and worse.

The solidly performed and frequently disturbing movie is set among the Irula tribe in Villupuram. Dirt-poor and without the official documentation needed to qualify for welfare schemes, the tribals, which include Rajakannu (Manikandan) and his wife Sengani (Lijomol Jose), exist at the mercy of wealthy and influential overlords.

Jai Bhim (2021).

Rajakannu and two of his relatives are framed in a robbery. Keen on delivering a “case closed” status report to their bosses, a bunch of police inspectors led by Gurumoorthy (Tamilarasan) make every bone-breaking attempt to get the trio to confess to a crime they didn’t commit.

In Chennai, the Leftist lawyer Chandru has emerged as a thorn in the side of the establishment. When Rajakannu and his relatives go missing from custody and the police claim that they have escaped, Chandru files a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Rajakunna’s wife Sengani.

Jai Bhim unfolds as part legal drama and part investigative thriller. Chandru doubles up as a detective in his quest to unravel the mystery of the disappearances. The stakes are raised when the Inspector General of Police Perumalswamy (Prakash Raj) is tasked with leading an inquiry into Chandru’s allegations.

Director Gnanavel, who has also written the screenplay, does a fine job of laying out the social and political conditions that lead to the victimisation of the Irulas. The mystery device helps in transforming an activist project into a suspense-laden thriller. There is plenty of scope for speechifying, which Gnanavel admirably keeps to a minimum.

But Gnanavel has a less firm hold on the pacing. Chandru’s pleas for repeated extensions increase the stress levels of the police and the public prosecutor as well as tests the patience levels of viewers. The 164-minute duration is unwarranted and threatens ever so often to undermine Gnanavel’s clear-eyed reminder that sometimes, it’s the police who are the criminals.

Jai Bhim (2021). Courtesy 2D Entertainment/Amazon Prime Video.

Despite his share of heroic grandstanding, Suriya is measured and restrained as the monomaniacal activist lawyer. The character, who is based on former Madras High Court Justice K Chandru, is less human than a symbol of revolutionary idealism.

An Economic and Political Weekly subscriber who sculpts a replica of Dhiren Gandhi’s Mahatma Gandhi sculpture Sacrifice For Humanity in his spare time, Chandru works alone and long into the night. Without teammates or a family or a lover to distract him, Chandru is this movie’s idea of what activists should be like: honest, principled, single-mindedly dedicated to social justice, and bereft of an inner life.

The film’s strength lies not in its characters but in its unflinching portrayal of the abuse of power. Jai Bhim is packed with harrowing scenes of custodial torture that are played out in full and then replayed for gruesome effect. There are a few speeches too and slo-mo shots of the camera-friendly Chandru striding across the frame.

The greatest horrors lie beyond the lock-up, in the systemic discrimination of the Irulas, their stereotyping as criminals, and the ease with which they are jailed and brutalised. In its rigorous expose of police misconduct, Jai Bhim moves far away from the supercop movie, as does Suriya from his previous screen image.

Jai Bhim (2021).