By Poulomi Das
One of the problems afflicting Hindi filmmakers today is that most of the times they have nothing to say. That, however is not the case with Anubhav Sinha or Article 15, a film whose very existence seems bankrolled by the resurgence of Sinha’s reputation after Mulk. Instead, Article 15 feels like one of those films whose accomplishment stands at the risk of coming undone because its writer-director has too many things to say.
There are two films in Article 15: The first, is a social drama that offers a biting commentary on how far-removed the everyday functioning of India is from the fundamental rights posited in our Constitution. Sinha powerfully lays bare this dichotomy through the growing irrelevance of Article 15, under which “the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them”. The second, is a police procedural, that investigates the collusion of the police force in the brutal gang-rape and murder of two lower-caste minor girls whose bodies are found hanging from a tree. (Borrowed from the 2014 Badaun gang rape and murder, where two girls, cousins and minors, from the Dalit Maurya community met a similar fate – they were kidnapped, gang-raped, and hanged from a tree.)
The director uses the template of the crime thriller – the air of suspense, urgency, and dread created by an unspeakable act committed in broad daylight whose culprits are yet to be apprehended – to sneak in social commentary. It’s an extra layer that distracts from Sinha’s central argument and borders on being exploitative at times, given that Article 15 doesn’t spend time examining the procedure of the crime or the investigation, instead conveniently announcing the details away.
Set in rural Uttar Pradesh, Article 15 opens with a title slate that thanks Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a man who has often been accused of turning a blind eye to the widespread communal and caste violence in the state. (According to a 2018 report, most hate crimes on minorities in that year – 27 – occurred in UP.) It’s an awkward if not an ironic salutation, considering Article 15 is hinged on criticising the abject lawlessness in the state.
The film opens with Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana), a newly minted IPS officer travelling to Lalgaon, an impoverished village in the state, to take charge of the local police station. Ayan is built up as a classic Hindi film hero, an upper-class Brahmin man of privilege – perhaps, a stand in for liberal India – who has lived a life shielded from the ramifications of systemic caste discrimination. Days after reaching Lalgaon, Ayan finds himself in the thick of a crime – two minor girls have been abducted and killed and the third is still missing – that no one seems to be hellbent on solving. The rest of Article 15, which also allocates time for an unconvincing love story (Ayan’s love interest is a writer who pens op-eds on “human rights” and “equality”, possibly the vaguest description of modern journalism), follows his fight against the system that is designed on oppressing the backward classes and not afford them either a semblance of dignity or justice.
Although, Article 15 takes forward the genre of Mulk – a brand of socially conscious filmmaking that thrived on calling out the regressiveness in supposedly progressive India – it gets blindsided whenever Sinha attempts to speak on behalf of the marginalised. Even with a Hindu protagonist driving the narrative, Mulk’s attack on Islamophobia, had an unembellished clarity to it. Its messaging was competent despite the horrific headlines it derived inspiration from, and not because of it. A significant portion of Article 15, on the other hand, feels like the opposite. Much of that feeling is evoked from the visuals of atrocities against lower-castes: shots of the two dead girls left hanging on the tree, a merciless incident of flogging (fashioned around the 2016 Una lynching), and a striking slow-motion shot of a manual scavenger diving into a manhole. It could be argued that Sinha cherry picks the provocative highlights from them: The reference to the 2014 Badaun gang-rape for instance, is only limited to that harrowing dehumanisation of the bodies of two teenagers, an act attracted front-page headlines across the world. But even without context, they’re elevated by Sinha’s assured filmmaking that betrays flourishes and lends much of Article 15 its gritty, rooted socio-economic palette. The film is also rounded off by a stellar supporting cast, including Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa, who continues the tradition of effortlessly playing against type in a Sinha production with favourable results.
But even then, it’s unclear what to make of Article 15’s onslaught on caste discrimination when Sinha seems disconnected from the ills of casteism. How seriously can you take a filmmaker preaching against caste prejudice when he himself could be accused of it? On more than one occasion, Article 15 (co-written by Sinha and Gaurav Solanki) confuses and misrepresents Dalits with the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes, am erroneous shorthand that is possibly the biggest marker of the cluelessness of the upper-class when it comes to telling stories of the lower-castes. (The national media was called out for this misreporting during its coverage of the Badaun gang-rape). The issue of caste, is in a brief sequence, mined as a joke. And, the film evidently suffers from the savarna saviour complex – a version of the white saviour complex – where Ayan is allowed to be the one who solves the case, apprehends the criminals, as well as finds the missing girl (In one of the final sequences, it is him who carries the assaulted girl to safety).
It’s impossible to view Ayan as just a well-meaning ally, given that the film’s two lower-caste characters, Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the missing girl, and Nishad (a stellar Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub), a rebel Dalit leader are wasted as secondary characters with lesser screen-times. Further, the director’s incompetence with handling a rape drama is exemplified in a worrisome sequence where Ayan breaks the news of a police officer being involved in a rape to his minor sister. It is the absence of Khurrana’s inherent machismo – a reputation that the actor has solidified through his film choices – and his restrained performance that single-handedly retains the film’s noble intentions. It’s also what aids it in not coming across as just a preachy exercise of, by, and for the privileged.
Yet, despite its flaws, it’d be remiss to not acknowledge the sheer pluckiness of Article 15. That a film (following in the footsteps of Masaan and Newton) doesn’t barely tip-toe around caste and dives into its impenetrable hold over biases alone, justifies its necessity. Sinha’s exploration of the complicity of the upper-class in sustaining caste prejudice even in these modern times is especially persuasive. A striking scene where Ayan asks his officers their caste, reveals the various ways in which it still divides the hierarchy of men wearing the same uniform. Ayan’s ignorance about his own caste, speaks volumes about how little of upper-class lives are spent negotiating the systemic boundaries of caste. The film’s quiet indictment of his privilege elevates its competent storytelling. A monologue that points out the dependence of India on the “bahujans” and “harijans” for menial jobs and their inability to see them as just “jans” (citizens) is haunting. If nothing, Article 15 remains engrossing as well as effective at landing punches on the guilt of the upper-class. It’s a reminder that Hindi cinema and its audiences, usually obsessed with the problems and quirks of the privileged, could do more with.
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