Suriya on bringing Justice K Chandru's life to reel with Jai Bhim: 'He is a change-maker, a beautiful disruptor'

Suriya on Jai Bhim: “You can pit what I’ve done my entire life versus what Justice Chandru has done for just one person, and he’ll still be the bigger person'

Subha J Rao November 02, 2021 11:05:41 IST
Suriya on bringing Justice K Chandru's life to reel with Jai Bhim: 'He is a change-maker, a beautiful disruptor'

Suriya as Advocate Chandru in Jai Bhim | Amazon Prime Video

It is going to be nearly a quarter of a century since the actor-producer first faced the camera, but the last two years have seen him adapt like never before and grow to fit a pandemic world.

He was among the first stars to accept that OTT releases were inevitable, and took a call to release his films there. He’s also taken the time during lockdown to recalibrate his career, which has been on an upswing since Sudha Kongara’s Soorarai Pottru. His choice of films is eclectic, and the performer called Suriya has enough interesting work to keep him happy.

Suriya is working with Vetri Maaran for Vaadivaasal, and has also announced a collaboration with Bala, who gave us two of Suriya’s most memorable films — Nandha and Pithamagan. But right now, the one person occupying his head and heart is retired Madras High Court Judge, Justice K Chandru, whose heart beat for the underprivileged, and whose character he brings alive in associate and friend TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim.

The film, starring Manikandan and Lijo Mol Jose as the tribal couple, is based on a real-life case that took place in 1993 and that Chandru fought as an advocate. There’s tremendous goodwill and kind words for the film, said to be a searing take on the incident.

The Tamil star first heard of Chandru years ago, when looking for those with experience to join as trustees and guide his NGO Agaram, which deals with education of the underprivileged. Kalyani ayya, a former college professor and social activist who works with the tribal Irula people for their rights, introduced Suriya to Chandru, who helped him fight for them. “I was amazed that Chandru Sir could do so much with so little, and that he was so selfless. I’ve got so much, and I felt I had to do much, much more,” recalls Suriya.

Years later, Gnanavel and Suriya decided to bring alive the life of Chandru, who has spent a life in activism, been an advocate, and a judge who has disposed of over 96,000 cases.

“I’ve read Chandru Sir’s books, and the arc of his life is amazing. He’s always been a regular at protest meetings, he’s been a Communist student leader. He was the kind who would once write a god’s name a lakh times, before he discovered Ambedkar and Periyar. He was often told to not ask questions, but he persisted. He decided to study law, and wield it to protect the rights of the common people,” recalls Suriya.

In real life, Chandru was quite an aggressive activist in his youth. So much so that Gnanavel and Suriya decided to tone that down in the reel version, because “people now see him as Judge Chandru, and even if I did half of what he did in real life on screen, they would presume I’ve done it for effect”, explains Suriya.

Suriya on bringing Justice K Chandrus life to reel with Jai Bhim He is a changemaker a beautiful disruptor

Suriya in a still from Jai Bhim

For some years now, and more so after he began Agaram, Suriya the person and artiste has been reading up a lot on society, especially the field of education. And, of late, he does not hesitate to make his stand known publicly, even if it might face backlash. He is fond of the phrase ‘silence is also violence’. That same diligence shows when he speaks of Jai Bhim. The statistics are on point, the number of cases against Irulas on his fingertips.

“We are speaking about a changemaker, a beautiful disruptor, and an important one at that. His judgments have made life smoother and better for many, and it is important to remember the facts. When you speak of someone’s good deeds, it inspires, and even if one person is tempted to change, it’s worth it,” says the actor.

The trailer of the film shows us a quiet Suriya — the fire burns within subtly. And, the actor has always managed to strike a balance between the kind of performance a film like Jai Bhim calls for with the over-the-top world of say the Singam universe. “Well, one is make-believe and I have to convince you as to what is happening. The other is real, I only have to stay true and do nothing extra. With a real-life character I connect with, I can be genuine and as close to the real person’s spirit as I can be, without letting anything cinematic get in the way,” he elaborates.

Like he mentioned before, care was taken to stick to what Chandru is perceived as now, someone with a white shirt and black coat. “For this very reason, one scene has me crossing just a barricade. In real life, he jumped across the Governor’s bungalow compound! The intensity of Chandru Sir is much more than what can be shown in film, and if shown, it might come across as something added for effect. But, he was that kind of person,” says Suriya.

Is this the most non-heroic role Suriya has done? Possibly.

“I don’t have to desperately try to say he’s a hero. You can pit what I’ve done my entire life versus what he’s done for just one person, and he’ll still be the bigger person. In this film, the subject is definitely the hero. He was someone who believed everyone deserved a fair trial.”

In such a case, says Suriya, there was no need “for a low-angle shot or a fight or to show what is normally considered heroism on screen. All of those are mere crumbs in front of what he’s done.” That said, the team did tone down the physical abuse compared to what it was like in real life. Even that is hard to see, and the film has an ‘A’ certificate.

Suriya on bringing Justice K Chandrus life to reel with Jai Bhim He is a changemaker a beautiful disruptor

Suriya in a still from Jai Bhim | Amazon Prime Video

Doing films that call for such introspection has changed him as a person, concedes Suriya. “I was an average student in school, and now I am learning with a certain amount of interest. I think reading is important, especially because it is a sign of respect for the work you do, be it as an actor or as someone running an NGO. You’re touching others’ lives, you have to be respectful and responsible, and reading helps you be both.”

Like his wife, actress Jyotikka, who’s on a dream run in her second innings, Suriya also believes that even if one person benefits from what a film’s core theme is, it’s purpose is fulfilled. “Our Ponmagal Vandhaal asked uncomfortable questions, started a debate. And, I think that was the intent with which we made it. When Jo spoke about hospitals [she mentioned how the government hospital in Thanjavur was badly maintained. Later the Agaram Foundation donated Rs 25 lakh towards maintenance], some people had an issue, but ultimately, the space was revamped [snakes were moved too]. It serves so many villages,” says Suriya.

This social consciousness and the fact that he’s put in two-and-a-half decades in the industry has placed Suriya in a spot where he’s in a position to mentor younger talent. “Suddenly, you realise people are looking up to you for some guidance, and if you’ve grown to be a tree here, you’ve to give back. You can’t always keep receiving.”

When did Suriya decide to be vocal about his thoughts on social issues, be it NEET or the National Education Policy?

“We have been in the field of education for 18 years now. We have the lived experience of dealing with children from underprivileged backgrounds. We have about 2,000 students with us at any given point, and the whole purpose of our intervention will never find its goal until the system changes. We have been working at the grassroots and are at a stage where we can give data. We need this change, we don’t need to be spectators. And so, we must talk,” says Suriya, whose NGO uses a 300-mark ranking system devised by Kalyani ayya to help kids. The marks are for things such as — are they raised by a single parent, does the house have a roof, how far is school from home, how much do they walk, has a motherless child scored well…

Suriya also thinks stepping into his 40s gave him the ability to see others’ kids like his own. “I’m usually not prone to crying. I struggle to cry even on screen, but when a child at Agaram speaks about her dreams and what she’s done and how I am a part of it, the tears flow. I think I react as a parent then. Also, when we speak, they listen, so speak. Educationists spoke about the NEP, I repeated the same things, to lend it better reach.”

Is Suriya apprehensive about any backlash?

“Not quite. I don’t wear a crown, I’m not on a throne. There’s nothing to lose. Whatever I’ve got so far is good. The rest is a bonus. I’ve done a lot because others might like it. Now, I’ve decided to do what my heart dictates. I like this journey, I like that I might dive into the unknown.”

Suriya on bringing Justice K Chandrus life to reel with Jai Bhim He is a changemaker a beautiful disruptor

Suriya on a poster still of Soorarai Pottru | Image from Twitter

Suriya might have adopted OTT, but he’s eagerly waiting for the day when people will confidently go back to theatres, because “films are a collective joy. We need to see them with others to enjoy them the way they ought to be. That reaction is something else,” he says. But, his 2D Entertainment is working to create some unique content for the OTT space, like eight-episode series, to cater to an audience beyond language and geography. “I wish we had that liberty to showcase Chandru Sir’s life too, there’s so much we could not cover in the film!” he says. “What I enjoy most about this is that we are able to collaborate and meet such new thinking minds. It’s wonderful and I keep wondering why we did not think of this before. There is a world of possibilities and I’d like for us to see what we can do there.”

That is also because as a person Suriya likes new experiences, in real life and on reel. “You can’t keep doing the same thing. You need new learning, new excitement, need to travel to new horizons, feel things you’ve not felt before…”

When he speaks of family, as always, Suriya’s voice takes on a happy tone. They are his safe place, and the respect he and Jo share mutually is the stuff of couple goals. “I believe she’s an exceptional actor, mother and the bond that holds our family. The younger generation in the family looks up to her. She’s the centrepoint of our lives and has ensured that we surround ourselves with a certain positivity and joy. There are celebrations within the family, she creates memories for all of us, be it Holi, Eid, Christmas, Pongal, Raksha Bandhan… and I am grateful for that.

I’ve grown in a very different world, and it is nice to take on new experiences. What I’ve learnt from her is to keep creating a nice environment around you. She’s single-handedly raised the kids and I feel guilty she sat at home for eight years, but she was very particular about wanting to be around when they were growing up. She’s equally or a little more responsible than me for 2D, and now, I’m just happy that 2D is able to produce her films. And, I love introducing her to the nice people I’ve met, because she loves a good conversation,” he smiles.

Subha J Rao is a consultant writer and editor based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka. There, she keeps alive her love for cinema across languages. You can find her on Twitter @subhajrao

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