Home / Opinion / Columns /  Disturbing movies and why people watch them

Why do people watch sad films? Why do sad stories exist?

Is watching human misery a form of entertainment? Is the display of torture art, journalism or sadism? Or, is it just that entertainment is not all there is in the lure of stories? Is a story then a device that delivers truth? But then if it is truth that we seek, why do we need a story for that? Are we like those children who need sugar to drink bitter medicine? Or, are we such suckers for emotion that we seek even grief ? Or, maybe we are so vain we seek our own biographies in stories, even if it is a miserable story. After all, the most corrupt quality in writers is that they make you do that corrupt thing with their stories—“relate to it".

But then, most of us will not be able to find even a moment of our lives in Jai Bhim. Yet, it is a film that is clearly meant for us, or at least the subscribers of Amazon’s Prime Video on which it began streaming a few days ago. Made by T.J. Gnanavel, it is a fictional telling of a true event: Many years ago, a few labourers in Tamil Nadu were arrested for theft and tortured in police custody.

The film is gripping and intelligent, but also difficult to watch. Our ambassador in the film is not any of the doomed labourers, but a person who is a lot like us, played by Suriya, who looks expensive even though he plays an angry lawyer-activist. He is a fierce Tamil hero who walks in slow motion to places where he still manages to reach before his foes. He fights for justice, and finds it. Thus, in the end, we win. Our man, who is highly literate and whose world is framed in English, defeats the evil semi-literates and liberates the illiterates. Still, the sorrow only abates towards the end; it never goes away.

Does watching a film about social injustice make us feel that we are contributing to social justice?

As things are, we are perhaps beneficiaries of many atrocities, including custodial torture. It is not our fault, but we are beneficiaries. How else could India, even though an inefficient nation, also be one of the safest places on earth for the rich and the middle classes? To a far larger extent than many care to admit, it is through the suspension of human rights for the poor. What India cannot achieve through systems and planning, it achieves through informal means. For the poorest of the poor in India, the consequences of breaking the law or even being falsely accused of breaking it, are so severe that it serves as a deterrent. The terror of jail also makes the poor subservient to their masters. That is how we are a nation where the poor are hardly allowed any swag.

All this will change one day, as it already is in some ways. In the future, there will be situations that will unsettle us all, but for now we are beneficiaries. So assured are we that we need to fulfil our quota of goodness through the facile act of watching a film on social justice.

It is not surprising that such a film would invoke Bhimrao Ambedkar, who, for most of the film’s target audience, is an icon who fought against caste inequality. The film’s title Jai Bhim itself is a tribute to Ambedkar. But there is a reason why this is absurd.

When I used to write a column for The New York Times, some days my editors did not understand my language. For example, my use of the word ‘tribal’ as a noun. I could never convince the newspaper that ‘Tribals’ were a classification of people widely used in India. The use of the adjective ‘tribal’ as a noun was one of the errors of Indian-English that eventually became the norm. But there is another word that is used for ‘Tribals’ that the world thinks is figurative but it is more precise than even Indians realize—’outcaste’.

Many Indians think ‘outcaste’ is a term used to depict the ‘lowest’ of four caste groups. That is not true. ‘Outcaste’ means exactly what the word says. Shudras, who were ranked the ‘lowest’ of the four groups in that hierarchy, were traditionally farmers, traders and craftsmen. Today, they are not ‘Dalits’, as some may think. Most of the caste groups that were under the ‘Shudra’ classification are today widely known as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). ‘Tribals’ were people who were outside the traditional caste system, hence they were the original ‘outcastes’, whom even the ‘lowest’ castes treated poorly. The villains in Jai Bhim who treat ‘Tribals’ in inhuman ways are not Brahmin, but members of ‘low’ castes, the constituency of Ambedkar, who himself was higher up the sub-hierarchy among ‘low castes’.

Not all Dalits admire the legacy of Ambedkar. For instance, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, the memoirs of a Dalit woman named Sujatha Gidla, has no obeisance to Ambedkar at all. Thus, we watched a ‘social commentary’ about ‘Tribals’ that assumes the pre-eminence of Ambedkar, without fully understanding all the undercurrents.

As I was raised in Madras, I could see the authenticity of the portrayal of ‘Tribals’ in Jai Bhim. This is how they really look today, and they look as doomed as the Tribal labourers from my childhood. All that activism across the years on their behalf by posher people has not changed their lives and fates. Maybe, if Tamil Nadu had been a capitalistic society, instead of a melodramatic and idealistic place, ‘Tribals’ would have fared better.

This film, which has probably done more for them than many agitations, is a triumph of capitalism. An American online retail store run by one of the world’s richest men invested in an entertainment platform that wishes to captivate beneficiaries of social injustice with stories about social justice.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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