How Suriya's latest film 'Jai Bhim' was inspired by his years of activism

The South Indian superstar plays a lawyer who takes up cases for the powerless in the legal drama

Many of Tamil superstar Suriya’s films have been remade into Bollywood movies, repackaged for a wider Hindi-speaking audience, with some becoming huge money-spinners in their own right. It’s a feat that speaks volumes of the actor’s ability to pick projects that strike a chord with audiences, irrespective of the languages they’re remade in.

Suriya, who recently sold the rights for a Bollywood remake of his 2020 acclaimed film Soorarai Pottru, will hope to repeat the same magic with his latest release Jai Bhim. In the legal drama, to be released on Tuesday in time for Diwali, the actor plays real-life lawyer-turned-judge K Chandru, known for his gratuitous work for the poor and his advocacy.

It’s a film close to the actor’s heart, and one borne out of his years of activism through his non-profit Agaram Foundation, an organisation he set up in 2006 to provide free education to school dropouts.

“Every time a film is made, it’s definitely a new journey. But this one is special,” the actor, born Saravanan Sivakumar and known by his mononymous stage name, said recently. “This is a beautiful film made by a beautiful team. It’s one of my best films and I hope the whole country will connect to it.”

Written and directed by TJ Gnanavel, a former journalist and an activist who helped Suriya set up Agaram Foundation 15 years ago, Jai Bhim is a retelling of a 1993 incident in Tamil Nadu, South India, where a tribal man who was arrested on false charges disappears from police custody. Seeking answers, the man’s helpless wife turns to a lawyer, played by Suriya in the film, who agrees to take up her case for free.

Suriya first heard about the story through one of his foundation's projects, he tells The National.

“We started working with this tribe called Irulars. There are about 200,000 of them in Tamil Nadu, many of them without voter IDs or a community certificate, without which they cannot send their children to school. They live outside the city, many without electricity or basic housing and we were helping to get their children into schools,” he explains.

“I was introduced to Chandru sir by Gnanavel and that’s how we came across this particular incident. Here’s a man who dedicated his life to helping the powerless and I really wanted to tell his story, even if it was just focused on one of the many cases he worked on.”

With Chandru’s blessings, Gnanavel began to work on the story, with Suriya’s 2D Entertainment, a company he owns with his wife, the actress Jyothika, as producer. They chose the title Jai Bhim, which translates to "victory to Bhim", a popular slogan used by followers of BR Ambedkar, the Indian social reformer who’s revered as the father of the Indian Constitution.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Ten days after production began, Covid-19-imposed lockdowns halted shooting in 2020. Then, soon after filming resumed in February this year, Suriya contracted the virus, leading to a brief spell in the hospital.

“It was a terrible time,” Suriya recalls, saying that it knocked him off schedule by four months.

It was also around this time that he decided the film would release on Amazon Prime Video, foregoing the traditional theatrical release as cinemas remained shut owing to the pandemic.

“I know there’s nothing like watching it in the cinema, but with Amazon, we are able to reach new audiences and I’m very happy about that,” he said. “The film has already been more than two years in the making and we didn’t know how things were going to be with regards to theatres and we were keen for audiences to see it.”

In his more than two decades in the industry, Suriya, who made his debut in the 1997 Tamil film Nerukku Ner, has played everything from a loveable con man in Pithamagan (2003) to a man suffering from anterograde amnesia in the 2005 blockbuster Ghajini. His Singam trilogy, in which he plays a freewheeling policeman who does not hesitate to bend the rules, are among his most popular films.

But playing a lawyer was a brand new experience that he relished.

“After three or four cop films, it was a contrast and I was out of my comfort zone,” Suriya said. “The body language is very restricted in this film as I had to stay true to a real-life character.

“But we had a lot of help from Chandru sir and his wife, who helped us with the writing and also visited the set a number of times. Also, my wife did a film, Ponmagal Vandhal, in which she played a lawyer and she was brilliant in it. She gave me a lot of tips and also encouragement that I was doing the right thing.”

He hopes Jai Bhim will inspire a new generation.

“Essentially, it’s about how one person can bring change and how people stand [up] for others and fight the system,” he said. “What we’re really doing is celebrating unsung heroes.”

'Jai Bhim' is out on Amazon Prime Video on Tuesday, November 2

Updated: November 2nd 2021, 7:27 AM