This is not just a review of two films. It is a reality check for our society or two different societies. Cinema is known for offering the reflection of society. While actors and filmmakers are artists, their duty is to justify their roles in society.
Two films have been released this month- first, a Tamil film Jai Bhim directed by T.J. Gnanavel and another is Hindi film Sooryavanshi by Rohit Shetty. Both the movies are the talk of the town but for entirely different reasons.
Jai Bhim is based on a real story that reflects a brutal picture of society. In contrast, Sooryavanshi is far from reality, a movie engrossed with distorted facts and false aspirations for the viewers.
With both films, one critical aspect that can be linked to the varying degrees of success that they have enjoyed is their respective audiences, perhaps more important than their directors. With regards to Sooryavanshi, the film entered the so-called 100-crore club within four days of its release. The film is yet another Rohit Shetty package with an extra flavour of Islamophobia. One wonders why audiences keep paying huge amounts of movies that don't make any sense.
Why are such prominent directors and actors making films which have no relevance?
As a film critic, I am not worried about the film and filmmakers; my concern is the audience. Why is the audience watching such a thing in the name of entertainment? Why are they making a fool out of them?
Sooryavanshi is an extension of previous Shetty cop films like Singham, Singham Returns and Simba. In earlier cop films, he focused on the singular theme of corruption. The hero of every Shetty film would always be a police officer, who would act as a one-person army to fix everything. In his latest release, Shetty has gone ahead and added an extra layer of Islamophobia.
This phenomenon of blatant Islamophobia was started by Sanjay Leela Bhansali with his film Padmavat. Before that, there were stereotypes of Muslims in Hindi movies, but with Bhansali, Muslims became subjected to complete demonisation and degradation.
The story of Sooryavanshi revolves around a plot wherein the hero saves the city from a bomb blast planned by terrorists who are Muslims.
With this film, it has become clear that filmmakers knew that adding Islamophobia is a good marketing strategy. This is why Shetty came out from typical cop films and entered the Islamophobic content trope. It has become convenient and easy for filmmakers to comfortably make movies while distorting the image of Muslims. These distortions offer reflections beyond the movies- one learns that in society, you can abuse the minority and sell anything you want, at least in cinema. It also shows the attitudes of filmmakers who cater to people's wants by making such movies.
The film gives many lectures on "good" Muslim and "bad" Muslim tropes. In one of such lectures, we learn about the stereotypical characterisation of Muslims who wear skull caps, offer namaz and read Quran as conservatives. In one particular scene, the lead, played by Akshay Kumar, while interrogating a terrorist, shows a Muslim policeman and says he is a good Muslim, thereby offering the audience a template into the differences between good Muslims and bad Muslims. If we go by this film, a bad Muslim is the one who prays, wears amulets, keeps a beard, etc. In contrast, good Muslims don't wear any religious marks and must celebrate other religions' festivals, etc.
Besides this characterisation of bad and good Muslims, the movie, quite bluntly, criminalise and villainise Muslims. Throughout the film, radical Muslims are shown with religious marks such as skull caps, beards, forehead marks, etc. The film successfully caters to all the debates in the country that are going on in the name of vilification of Muslims. For example, in the last few years, the Islamic seminary (known as Madarasa) has been dubbed as a space of religious extremism. The most radical person in the film, the antagonist, runs a Madarasa.
It successfully 'others' majority of the Muslims as radical, thereby excluding them from the so-called secular society. The film also shows some things which good Muslims can do. In a scene, some Muslims (costumed in a particular way) were helping their neighbours to save the idol of Ganesha, a categorisation of acceptable Muslims, with the rest as radicals, especially those who offer namaz.
This template of forceful incorporation of Muslims in the secular idea of India is not new. The representation of minorities in Bollywood films is either overstated or invisible. Amar Akbar Anthony, always remembered for the celebration of pluralism of India, also has two characters, in Akbar and Anthony, who are needed to support specific costumes which can justify their religions. In contrast, Amar, a Hindu, is in his usual attire as per time and space.
Jai Bhim is a film about atrocities against the Irula tribe of Tamil Nadu and a lawyer Justice K Chandru who fought for their rights. In 1993, when Justice Chandru was a practising lawyer, he fought the case of a woman from the Irula tribe whose husband was arrested in a fabricated theft case and then killed in Police custody. This film showed how Justice Chandru fought for backward people and helped them get justice without charging fees.
Jai Bhim has been produced by famous actors of the Tamil industry, Jyothika and Suriya. This film shows the plight and atrocities faced by lower caste and backward people in Tamil Nadu and how caste is a significant factor in Tamil society. This film also gives great details about how Police torture the people inside the police station. Throughout the film, this extra-judicial act of Police has been criticised, but in Sooryavanshi, such behaviour is rather condoned.
Jai Bhim shows how a person who cannot access justice will almost and always end up with a bad fate unless they find an advocate like Justice Chandru. In this way, this film presents two sides. One is talking about the plight of backward, lower, marginalised, minorities and the other deals with how a person like Justice Chandru is fighting to bring equality in society.
This film can also be seen in today's frame by looking at how subalterns survive with the idea of justice and their portrayal in popular culture. Usually, subaltern does not get space in popular cinema, but Tamil cinema has emerged as giving screen space to the content that talks about subaltern, especially Dalits. Films like Pariyerum Perumal, Kaala, Asuran, Karnan could be counted in this list.
PEAK INTO TWO SOCIETIES
Sooryavanshi and Jai Bhim could be seen as two popular films in which the makers are treating the issues of the respective societies. The latter has nicely weaved every minute detail of the actual incident and brought out something to reflect the ethos of society. The former has been used as a fabricated story without its relevance to society with VFX effects.
Even the role of gender needs to be observed keenly, and how the agency of women is different in both films. Women are mostly used as a prop in our movies, but in the case of Jai Bhim, it purely justifies the existence of women in the story. But in Sooryavanshi, women are used to fill the plots and add the masala. The film's lead actress is without any agency. She becomes a filler in the story, used mainly for songs- a continuation of a regressive trend in mainstream Bollywood movies, especially those directed by Shetty.
The question that needs to be asked to the audiences is, why do they watch or consume a specific kind of content with either of these movies?
I believe that most films are made on peoples' consciousness. The target audiences of the above films are different, one film is in Tamil, and another one is in Hindi (Hindustani). The language decides the priority of the audience. However, the market is an essential factor in both films, but used differently.
In contemporary times, Indian society and politics have been polarised and communalised, leading to society's radicalisation and hatred against minorities, especially Muslims. This hatred is widespread in society, especially Hindi speaking audiences, with many exceptions. The makers of Sooryavanshi takes the opportunity to cash into a crisis that plagues society. This might be the reason why the film is making such big money at the box office.
On the other hand, Jai Bhim is the consciousness of Tamil society where caste consciousness and cinema of caste issues are at their peak. Hence, the makers take the opportunity to bring out the consciousness of Tamil society.
In India, cinema falls under the category of entertainment. People take it as entertainment only. A majority of the audience expects film as masala entertainment, which may be why Sooryavanshi has become a huge hit compared to Jai Bhim.
Nehal Ahmed is a Cinema scholar at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. All views are personal.