Actor Suriya’s latest outing Jai Bheem has received rave reviews. The movie is based on real-life instances of how the Irula tribes in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu were subjected to custodial torture in 1995, and the legal fight put up on behalf of them by a human rights lawyer. The screen name of Mr. Suriya in the movie is Chandru and the latter is none other than Justice K. Chandru of Madras High Court.
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The Hindu caught up with the actor, the retired judge and the movie director Tha.Se. Gnanavel for a freewheeling chat on the movie. Here are the excerpts...
When did you first get the thought that this real-life incident could be made into a feature film?
Suriya : I must first tell you that I met Justice Chandru again, just five minutes before this interview. This is our first meeting after he had watched the film. He hugged me. I see that as a big blessing. We always see a very different definition of heroism in movies. Though I know Justice Chandru very well, I got to know a lot more about him when I read one of his books. After reading that, I realised how ordinary people can also be heroes, how they can fight for the cause of others.
It was director Gnanavel who brought that book to me. I believe that cinema is the highest art form and it is very important to convey good things through this. Though Justice Chandru had fought for many causes, I consider it a privilege to have got the opportunity to have been able to picturise at least one of those instances. Personally, it is a big recognition for me to have been able to do the character of Justice Chandru in the movie.
There are many actors who earn name, fame and money in the film industry, but you have been an actor who is involved in social causes too? Why are you into all this?
Suriya : When you ask this, two things strike me. One is that I see it as my pot is full. I am 46 years old now. I have got a lot of things from this society. I have earned a name, love, money. Now, its time for me to give it back to the society with gratitude. I have to be meaningful to the society. Of course, we started Agaram Foundation about 10 years ago, but Justice Chandru has been fighting for the society from the age of 16. Even before entering college, he had been a selfless person. Then, he became a people’s lawyer and a people’s judge.
So, whatever I do now to the society with the financial position that I am in right now, is nothing compared to what he had done when he had nothing. When we reach a good position, we all have to be thankful. It is a big blessing. People should look at others as fellow beings. We should look at them as our families, our daughters. The idea behind making this movie is also to ignite younger minds about how one person like Justice Chandru could help thousands. Gnanavel has made the movie as a new form of cinema. Justice Chandru refused permission to us for making a 15-minute documentary about his life. He was not interested in eulogising an individual. So we consider it a boon that he permitted us to make this movie about one of the many cases that he fought as a lawyer.
It is heart-wrenching to know that the Irula tribes were surviving by catching and eating rats in 1995. The police brutality against them is painful. Yet, it appears that you have made a conscious decision to make the movie in such a way that it reaches as many as possible and not confine it to the so called ‘art film’ category. Am I right?
Suriya : Even in 2021, the life of the tribals has not changed much. We have shown both the positive and negative sides of society. We have shown how Justice Chandru as a lawyer had come to the rescue of those tribals. We have also shown how a policeman too comes to their aid. We have shown how even one person can be a changemaker.
Actor Suriya says that you didn’t agree for a 15-minute documentary about your life, but he is elated that you gave your consent to make this feature film. Why did you agree for this?
Chandru : Human rights lawyers conduct thousands of cases but they get confined only to law books. Therefore, rather than taking a film about my life and eulogising me, when a movie is made about a community such as the Irula tribes, it could help in being a start for a positive change in their lives.
Secondly, people will get to know how difficult it is to get a judgment from a court of law. This movie is to show how a lawyer could use his skills, learnt the hard way, for the betterment of society. Today, the bail granted to Shahrukh Khan’s son is the hot topic. You may know how the lawyers would have charged hefty amount of fees for arguing that case. This movie is to show how lawyers can also fight for those who cannot afford any fees. This will enthuse confidence on the judicial system and also give hope to young lawyers that they can also fight for the causes that they believe in.
When these things are shown in a bigger canvas, the message will reach greater number of people. I thought that cinema, beyond being a medium of entertainment, can also be a medium to exhibit the life of ordinary tribals and the judicial system. Therefore, when director Gnanavel asked, I agreed to it. The most important thing is that when an established actor like Suriya is part of it, the status of the movie gets elevated to a different level.
He is acting as a lawyer in this movie. The stress should be on that, and not that he is acting as Chandru. It was director Gnanavel and Suriya who wanted to show certain aspect of Chandru’s life too in the movie while finalising the screenplay, and even put an end card thanking me. I consider it a recognition of the work that I had done over the years.
This movie highlights a very important social problem; that the police always think of torture as the only way to make the suspects talk. This thought process appears to have deeply ingrained in the uniformed force. Can’t we find out other investigative methods?
Chandru : After the British conquered India completely, it was a big challenge for them to rule the nation. When we say ruling, it amounted to crushing dissent. They used the police. Even today, we are following the 1888 law. Its first object is to maintain law and order. The British used it for their benefits, but what is wrong is that we are following the same policing system even after the Constitution came into force. The police force needs orientation. They are still being used by the political dispensation and at times, shown leniency by the judiciary. It leads to injustice to the victims who cannot afford highly-paid lawyers. It is in this circumstance that this movie gives a ray of hope to those who want to achieve justice through courts of law.
When you were a lawyer, you were the fiercest critic of judiciary. Even in this movie, we can see lawyer Chandru holding placards against judges right in front of them on the court corridors. How did you become a judge then?
Chandru : We should not forget one thing. Even now the Supreme Court is asking farmers how can they protest against farm laws, when a related case is pending in court. Just because a case is pending in court, it’s wrong to expect that all other related activities should come to a grinding halt. Secondly, it’s not wrong to give pamphlets to judges or show placards to them in the corridors. The Madras High Court has been fortified with Central Industrial Security Force since a few years ago, just because some lawyers were holding placards inside a court hall. It is wrong. If someone shouts inside my court hall, it’s wrong to initiate contempt and send him to jail. The court’s majesty must be exhibited in the formidable judgements that it delivers, not in these petty things. Director Gnanavel has beautifully shown how a lawyer can protest on road and also fight in court, without any conflict between these two forms of fighting for justice.
What is your expectation from this movie?
Chandru : On one side, there is a grim thought among people that courts are of no use and that they are institutions which serve only the rich. This film will give a ray of hope that even the underprivileged can fight for justice in courts of law.
Secondly, this movie hasn’t given much importance to an individual’s life. Instead it has spoken in detail about how the oppressed can safeguard themselves through a joint fight. When this kind of a movie is produced by a big banner and has the involvement of an established actor, it’s reach will be much higher. Since it’s being released on OTT platform, people across the world can watch it from the comfort of their home. If those people get the feel of helping the underprivileged people portrayed in this movie, I would consider that a great achievement.
The one thing that is most striking in this movie is its art direction. You have recreated the Madras High Court with great perfection. Why did you insist on such attention to detail ?
Gnanavel : We decided that the same court hall where the case was argued in 1995 must be recreated for this movie. So, now that the High Court is fortified with CISF security, we couldn’t go freely into the campus. So, we went in thrice through the monthly heritage walks and studied the nuances of the court hall and the building. But we were not allowed to take photographs or measurements of the court hall. Then, Justice Chandru gave us the 150th souvenir of the court. It had some photographs, and using that we created the entire set. The entire credit goes to art director K. Kathir.
Another important aspect of this movie is its music. Sean Roldan has done a fantastic job. How was your experience working with him?
Gnanavel : This movie travels through two contrasting places. One is the very simple place where the Irula tribes live and the other is a majestic institution such as the High Court, a power centre. So, we decided to show that difference in music. We recorded the background score for the court scenes at a studio in UK. Sean Roldan brought out the difference in the music very beautifully.
Yet another striking aspect in the movie is the attention given to costumes. I could see that you have chosen the right T-shirts that were used in 1995; from the striped barrister pants that Justice Chandru used to wear to the electronic watch he sported. How were you able do this?
Gnanavel : I must thank Bharathi Ma’am (Mrs. Chandru) for that. I was able to get all the content related to his profession from Justice Chandru like an encyclopedia , but I was able to get his character insights only from his wife. Not just costumes, she helped us to learn how he would get angry, how he conducts himself at home, how he would be after conducting an important case, and so on. She helped in the character study and shared lot of old photos with us. It was using those photos, that we purchased the costumes.
Who helped you learn the lifestyle of Irula community?
Gnanavel : It was Professor Kalyani and his team of the Tribal Protection Society who helped us gain access to the Irulars. We went to around 60 settlements of Irular tribes and we selected some of them for acting in this movie. Many original tribes were selected and made to act after training. I should thank Professor Kalyani for that.
Now that the movie is ready, are you satisfied with the final product?
Gnanavel : Yes, I am thoroughly satisfied. Everything fell in place right from the casting till the end product. It’s a big achievement that I was able to shoot this movie without any compromises.
Jai Bhim is currently streaming on Amazon Prime