The Verdict: In this column published in the first week of every month, Raja Sen single out The Best and The Worst across Indian film and television in the month gone by. Consider it a report card. This November turned out to be a uniformed month, giving us a super film about ghastly policemen, and a ghastly film about super policemen.
Jai Bhim (Amazon Prime)
Jai Bhim begins with a supremely haunting scene. One afternoon outside a prison, several policemen stand and divide up a bunch of prisoners based on their caste. This looks like an everyday affair for the cops — something is done as casually as picking a neighborhood cricket team — where they let the upper caste prisoners go free while holding back those from lower castes, pinning their pending cases onto them. It feels terrifyingly believable.
TJ Gnanavel’s tough, unflinching Tamil drama tells the story of a true courtroom hero. Suriya stars as crusading legal warrior K Chandru, a Madras High Court judge who fought against caste discrimination and dismissed over 96,000 cases. The film tells us the story of Rajakannu and Sengeni, two hard-working members of the snake-catching Irula tribe. After Rajakannu is wrongly arrested for theft, his pregnant wife Sengeni fights the system in order to win her husband’s freedom. Chandru is the lawyer who takes her side.
The film is obviously inspirational — Suriya using every ounce of his screen charisma to make Chandru a dynamic and compelling character — and while the courtroom scenes are riveting (and reassuring) the film enchants us with the humane and sensitive romance between Rajakannu (played by K Manikandan) and Sengeni (a brilliant Lijomol Jose) who win us over to their side long before hell breaks loose. I had to avert my eyes in the torture sequences. The often-brutal film feels more harrowing because of how much we feel for this tenderly portrayed couple.
Suriya deserves the loudest applause. The superstar has not only acted but also produced this important and relevant film. It feels a far cry from Hindi cinema, where screen stars — and cops — childishly thump their own chests while chasing down the wrong targets. They’re only arresting development.
Sooryavanshi (In theatres/Netflix)
This is a dangerously bad film.
In the ultimate irony, the blame for the existence of Sooryavanshi may be laid at the feet of Suriya. Rohit Shetty’s universe of A-lister policemen started a decade ago with Ajay Devgn in Singham — a film so crotch-focussed I had labeled it “Devgnporn” in my 2011 review — which was a noisy remake of Suriya’s 2010 hit Singam. Suriya has since moved on, changed sides, and uses his stardom to back harrowing dramas about police brutality. The superstars of Hindi cinema, on the other hand, appear content to wear tight khaki and obsequiously toe the line.
In one Sooryavanshi scene, for instance, a government official briefing the Anti-Terrorism Squad says “As you all know, Section 370 being scrapped in Kashmir has made it completely impossible for terrorists to enter India…” Consider that “As you all know.” As if this is not only fact but gospel. This is pathetic and deeply irresponsible propaganda, as blatant as product placement. The kind of propaganda that leads to movie producers getting Padma Shri awards.
There is more islamophobia running through Sooryavanshi than shots of Akshay Kumar running in slow-motion — which is saying something. Not only are all the terrorists Muslim, but the valiant heroes just happen to be Hindus. The film also has the gall to playact some sort of pseudo-Manmohan Desai style secularism — featuring the heavy-handed imagery of friendly Muslims helping save a Ganesha idol — but the message is unmistakably clear: those Muslims who follow instructions are “good Muslims.” Especially the ones who join the police.
The writing is atrocious. Kumar plays a policeman who forgets people’s names. His wife is called Ria, but he variously calls her ‘Hernia,’ ‘Malaria’ and ‘Syria.’ He forgets all names, in fact, except those of the Muslims on the police hit list. Those names he remembers even when he forgets his own. That says a lot about policy priorities. Once a profiler, always a profiler.
Raja Sen is a critic, author, and screenwriter. He has written the upcoming film Chup with filmmaker R Balki.