The film Jai Bhim has garnered its fair share of bouquets and brickbats ever since its release on November 2. Actor Suriya has been lauded for his onscreen portrayal of Justice K Chandru, who is the central character of the film.
In this interview with Bar & Bench, the activist-turned-lawyer-turned-judge reveals how Jai Bhim is the first Tamil film to realistically showcase High Court proceedings, his first big case, and how cases like the one that forms the plot of the film made him an “efficient” judge.
Edited excerpts follow.
Has Jai Bhim conveyed to the audience what you wanted it to convey?
Justice Chandru: Rarely do films carry a social theme and a message accompanying it. In that way, this film Jai Bhim conveyed several messages to the audience. To be specific, the film talked about using law as a weapon to redress grievances of the people. It also showed how affected people should get themselves organised as a movement and must also take to the streets with their specific demands to the State.
On the question of literacy, in the beginning, you can see the tribal woman putting her thumb impression on the court papers, whereas in the end, her daughter is seen reading a newspaper comfortably perched on the chair, in the house of the lawyer.
It also wanted to convey that the ultimate liberation is literacy, and in a way communicates the famous quote of Dr BR Ambedkar, “learn, educate and agitate”. That message has gone down well.
The film must have brought back some memories. There are instances where during the habeas corpus hearing, Chandru's character goes an extra mile, quite literally, to gather witnesses and evidence.
Justice Chandru: Every case relating to human rights is always etched in our memories. The case of Rajakannu’s death was unique in many ways. What started as a habeas corpus petition ended up in a murder trial against the guilty policemen.
The tribal woman who came to me did not have any material regarding the whereabouts of her husband, except that she saw that him being taken away to the police station and did not return home.
Thereafter, the burden of proving the whereabouts fell on the police. They fabricated evidence by getting statements from one local doctor who treated the late Rajakannu and also a juice shop wala who spoke about the trio taking juice from his shop.
It was at that time I remembered the famous “Paniwala” case. A Delhi paniwala complained to the Supreme Court that he was cited as witness in at least 3,000 cases and police will not allow him to remain quiet and were threatening to damage his business if he refused to appear in courts. Therefore, I insisted on cross-examining the two witnesses before the court.
Initially, the judges were reluctant to record evidence and expand the scope of the habeas corpus petition. But I cited the Rajan’s case from the Kerala High Court (Eachara Varier v. Secretary To The Ministry Of Home, Govt. of Kerala). In that case, evidence was recorded about the missing Rajan, an engineering student who was taken to a special police camp for questioning and never returned. His father Eachara Varier moved the Kerala High Court with a habeas corpus and evidence was also recorded. When the judges finally agreed to record evidence and the matter was adjourned, there was a change in the division bench.
Justice PS Mishra, who came from Patna, sat with Justice Shivaraj Patil from Karnataka. It was Justice Mishra in the early 90s who brought a new orientation in dealing with matters relating to police excesses, lock-up torture and encounter deaths.
Initially, I did not have any clue about the whereabouts of Rajakannu's two nephews and it took some efforts to locate them in far away Kerala, where they were hiding themselves and doing menial work to sustain themselves. They were persuaded to come to Chennai, and in my office, their statements were recorded and produced before the court. Since those two persons were eye-witnesses to lock-up torture, the case took a new turn. After reading their statements, Justice Mishra remarked that it was a clear case of murder.
Thereafter, my request for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry was rejected and instead the judge asked me to suggest the name of a police officer with whom we have confidence. That was how Inspector General Perumalsami (a character shown in the film with the same name and played by Prakash Raj) was appointed.
The habeas corpus was closed by granting compensation to the wife of Rajakannu and the two nephews. My request for allotment of a house site for them was also granted by the Division Bench. After the report of the Inspector General who was appointed as a one-man Special Investigation Team, the case was sent to be tried by the Sessions Court under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code.
Thereafter our request for appointment of a Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) was considered by the government, and Mr Venkataraman was appointed. This was also challenged by the accused police. The High Court dismissed the writ petition after hearing my arguments. The house of the Special Prosecutor was attacked by certain hoodlums and the police were mute spectators. Thereafter, at my instance, the Madras High Court Advocates Association filed a petition seeking for police protection to the SPP, which was granted by the Court.
The Sessions Court at Vridhachalam conducted the trial and convicted all the policemen and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Their appeal before the High Court was also dismissed subsequently.
The film was taken having this case as the background and several changes were made as per the creative ideas of the Director TJ Gnanavel. Some of these real episodes were not taken as part of the movie, lest it may make the lawyer hero look like a superman.
You were a student leader, a lawyer and then a High Court judge. Could you tell us about the transition from one phase into the next and how your ideas and work evolved each time?
Justice Chandru: As a student activist, I had also participated in the trade union movement and was closely working with them. The National Emergency declared during 1975-77 was an eye opener for many of us at that time, since the courts were made powerless and the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution were suspended. At that time, I was a law student and was learning the Constitution Law in the classroom.
Fact and fiction gave me ideas to practice in court in defence of the poor and downtrodden. After my enrolment in 1976 as a lawyer, the first major case I appeared in was before the Justice Ismail Commission, which went into the jail excesses committed against Maintenance of Internal Security (MISA) Act detenues in Madras Central Jail during February 1976. One of the detenues was our present Chief Minister MK Stalin. The Commission found that the jail officials were responsible for the attack and torture of the prisoners and recommended serious action. The trial before the Commission and my participation in it on behalf of the Marxist detenues made me well-known in High Court circles.
I subsequently became elected as a member of the Tamil Nadu Bar Council (1983-88). I also became an office-bearer of the Madras High Court Advocates Association. I had led a number of agitations during this period. My exposure to the prison system later helped me to give several directions to the government to bring in reforms in the prisons.
My activism as a student leader and my practice as a lawyer for human right cases also helped me to be a judge, to deal with human rights violations with utmost strictness and also to grant quick relief and many a times, higher compensation. My world outlook and concern for society helped me to deal with the cases of the downtrodden in a better manner.
In the film, Chandru is seen as one of the only lawyers who appeared in court when advocates went on protest. Do you think we need more such people wanting to do what you did, or there are people doing it already?
Justice Chandru: From 1976 till 1997, I was at the forefront of lawyers' agitations and work stoppages. But I realised that closing the court and fighting for our cause is clearly erroneous. The courts are meant for the litigants and not the lawyers. The lawyers are only agents appointed by the litigants to pursue their case and the Advocates Act, 1961 gave virtual monopoly to the profession.
Therefore, I broke from the ranks and started attending courts whenever there was serious human rights violations. This irked the bar. During the strike against amendments to the Civil Procedure Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, I wrote two articles in the Indian Express and in a Tamil daily supporting those amendments and opposing strikes throughout the country.
The High Court Advocates Association removed me from their rolls and that was end of my honeymoon with them. I was designated as a Senior Advocate by the High Court in 1997. Thereafter, on a number of occasions, I had appeared and secured good orders for the clients who are incarcerated in prison and also in cases where there was police repression.
This episode is shown in the film wherein Suriya, amidst striking advocates, jumps over a barricade and goes to court to attend the case of some tribals. He also wears a white band on his coat arm to symbolise that lawyers can protest in different forms. Today, there are many lawyers who believe that the system of court boycotts have only produced negative results and are no longer effective.
Was there ever a mental conflict when you took up judgeship? In the present times how would you expect the judiciary to evolve?
Justice Chandru: At the time when I became a judge, many of my clients and social activists were unhappy about it. For them, it was a sudden loss of a facility. But then I was convinced by Justice VR Krishna Iyer that I should accept judgeship.
On my swearing-in ceremony, I had also said that the nation can be served from anywhere. The misconception or the disappointment that my clients and friends had over my accepting judgeship soon got dissipated after seeing my performance as a judge. I had no mental conflict of any kind when I accepted the post. I was ready to accept it with all its inherent limitations. Even after my service as a judge for less than 7 years, I had retired with full satisfaction.
Once, Chief Justice of India SH Kapadia advised judges that they should strive to “work like a horse and live like a hermit”. This advice I followed, and I also expect judges to do the same.
How did the life stories of Rajakannu and Parvathy Ammal (depicted as Sengeni) shape your life's outlook? How did you meet Parvathy and why did you take up the case?
Justice Chandru: Even before the case of Rajakannu, I had conducted several cases of police torture and lock-up deaths. Even after this case, I had conducted several other cases of state excess and human rights violations.
The exposure I got from these matters made me work as an efficient judge when such matters came before me. If Rajakannu’s case took 9 months in the High Court, similar matters which came before me were disposed of in 3 to 4 weeks.
The compensation, I paid to the victims was three times more than that of the amount paid to Parvathy. I met Parvathy by accident. I went to address a meeting of teachers at Neyveli, a township near her village. She had come to ask me to help her. Then I told her to come to Chennai over a weekend and thus the journey of the habeas corpus case started.
The movie also shows Chandru's dismay and anger on learning that a crucial piece of information was hidden from him by Sengeni. Did it really happen and did you have second thoughts on continuing with the case?
Justice Chandru: I am also known to be short-tempered, especially when the clients hide something from me and later I come to know of it. But the episode shown in the film was not part of a true episode and it was added by the Director to show my short temper.
Jai Bhim is set in the 90s and portrays the prevailing caste-oppression and police brutality. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2019, majority of the convicts in Indian jails belonged to Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) How do you interpret these numbers?
Justice Chandru: It only shows that the law grinds the poor and goads the rich. These numbers do not even show the correct picture. Many a time, without a trial by courts, the dominant castes in villages give their own punishment in the Khap Panchayats. Besides the regular criminal justice system, the SC/STs undergo various punishments at the hands of the dominant castes, ten times more than what is being handed over by the regular courts.
Has Suriya, in depicting you, been able to impress or live up to your expectations?
Justice Chandru: For once, a top movie star like him became the Director’s baby and he did his role as per the desire of the Director. In fact, instead of showing individual adventurism of a lawyer, the movie makes him a subdued personality and is true to the legal proceedings in the High Court. He played a completely restrained role. This is the first time a Tamil movie has shown a realistic portrayal of High Court proceedings. There are no flashy dialogues, angry outbursts or disproportionate repartees.
What do you have to say about the controversy surrounding the purported symbolism of a particular community in the film?
Justice Chandru: The casteist leaders of that particular community were really perturbed by the title of the film and the likely impact it may have on their own community. Therefore, out of desperation, they have searched for controversies by which they can whip up communal tension.
When a particular calendar hung in the sub-inspector’s house showed the symbol of their caste association, and after it was pointed out within two days of the release, the said calendar was replaced.
They are still finding faults and have sent legal notices for naming the inspector with a particular name, which according to them, refers to one of their deceased leaders. But none of the film goers have got such an impression. Having nothing else to do, they have started the new campaign against the Actor and the Director.
I am glad that their threat to move the court will really happen so that saner arguments will be addressed before a court of law and only a legal solution may be found for their alleged grievance.