After a fine Mulk, Anubhav Sinha returns with another sharply-observed film, Article 15. The film follows the journey of Inspector Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) who is assigned the task of investigating the murder of two Dalit girls in Laalgaon, Uttar Pradesh. Inspired from many real-life events and characters, the film incorporates the continuing role of caste in contemporary India to create an astute political thriller.
Article 15 begins with a tribute to Bob Dylan and moments later his song Blowin' In The Wind plays on the radio. The lyrics, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" summarize the film's theme which asks for equality amongst all citizens. At a later point in the film, Dalit leader Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) also says something similar. In a secret meeting with Ayan, he tells him, "Hum kabhi harijan ho jaate hain, kabhi bahujan ho jate hain, bas jan nahi ban paa rahe hain ke Jan Gan Man me hamari bhi ginti bhi ho jaaye." (Sometimes we are called Harijans, sometimes Bahujans. But we are never counted as citizens, so we would be counted as equals.) When will all Indians have the same rights in reality as opposed to having them only on paper? The film raises this key question.
It is a common saying that if one does not know his caste, he most likely belongs to an upper caste. This seems to be the case with Ayan as well. He grew up in a city and lived a largely privileged life. To him, rural India is an exotic place defined by the beauty of Khajuraho and the Taj Mahal. Even his name Ayan sounds more urban than the other characters in the film. After a few days, Ayan learns that countryside India is the "Wild, Wild West." For the first time, he sees the pernicious impact of the caste system on people. When he is being driven to Laalgaon, there is a copy of Jawahar Lal Nehru's Discovery of India beside him. Article 15 is also the journey of Ayan on the discovery of India where he learns about the events that are shown on Page 7 of the newspapers while he has been a part of Page 3. His girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) tells him that all his life he has followed what others have told him to. She remarks, "Tum jo khud ho dhoondna bhi nahi chahte. Khud ke paas nahi ho toh mere paas kya rahoge."
Ashutosh Gowariker's Swades: We, the People depicted the self-discovery of a Non-Resident Indian Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan) who leaves the US and comes back to India. A mineral-water drinking Mohan embraces the water of his country and accepts it as his calling. Article 15 shows Ayan's self-discovery where he moves from urban India to rural India. Mohan was more aware of the challenges and the reality of India, while Ayan is ignorant. Water is shown as a means of discrimination in this film as well but in a different way. Ayan is advised not to buy a water bottle from a village of lower-caste people. The water that is served to him is covered with foil. When villagers come to his house, they are offered water directly from the jug because they won't drink from glasses.
In Mulk, Sinha showed the discrimination faced by a Muslim family because of their religion. It opens with a teacher writing two words in the Urdu script—khuda and juda—where he mentions that the structure of these two words is the same, the only difference being the position of the dot. It is about how people are prejudiced against others on the basis of the khuda (God) they follow. Hindu neighbours would come to functions of their Muslim neighbours but not eat at their home. The film's tagline 'When your own disown you' conveyed a sense of otherizing. In Article 15, Sinha shows the same segregation of fellow citizens into us and them on the basis of their caste. The film takes its title from Article 15 of the Indian constitution that prohibits the state from discriminating against a citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Like the food in Mulk, an upper-caste police officer is asked not to eat from the same plate used by a lower-caste police officer. Article 15's tagline also conveys the theme of otherizing. Farq bahut kar liya, ab farq laayenge.
Article 15 compares the events in the film to a mess. Ayan confides to Aditi that he is in a messed-up situation and will have to "unmess" it. This is going on while he's literally walking through a mess. Other things are also broken but no one seems to care, like the broken fan or the leaking tank. The literal messed-up situation again comes to the fore in the climax that involves the swamp. Brahmdutt Singh (Manoj Pahwa) pleads to Ayan to not do anything about the case of the missing girls and compares the situation in the village to a daldal (quicksand). He says, "Daldal hai, sir. Mat ghusiye, sir. Ek baar ghus gaye toh nikal nahi paayenge." Later, an actual daldal comes into play when Ayan asks policemen to enter the swamp to find the missing girl. Eventually, Ayan also enters the daldal symbolizing that he is as much a part of the caste system and needs to enter it to "unmess" the situation.
Cinematographer Ewan Mulligan has shot the film beautifully, taking inspiration from his favourite films. It is hard to miss out on the eerie look of the village which evokes a feeling of a post-apocalyptic world. The film opens with a statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar getting drenched in torrential rain. Fog, smoke, and dust often cloud the screen when something sinister is about to be revealed. The visual tone of the film is quite grim. Mulk was also shot in a way that gave out a feeling of coldness.
The film has nicely etched characters with unique traits. Brahmdutt shows immense kindness to street dogs by feeding them biscuits and taking them to the veterinary doctor but shows no empathy to human victims of flogging who were seething in pain. Gaura (Sayani Gupta) is determined and self-respecting. She never pleads in front of police inspectors. When other villagers came to Ayan's house, they folded their hands, but not her. Perhaps that is why her last scene in which she is folding hands in front of Ayan felt like a false note in her character. There has been some criticism of the film suffering from a saviour complex, but this article critiques other issues with the film lucidly.
The film's most memorable character is Nishad, played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Nishad's ideology is inspired by the views of many real-life figures. He is the Daliton ka Robin Hood. Gaura remarks that Nishad learned from Bhagat Singh that to draw attention to the cause, one has to make a noise. "Behron ko sunaane ke liye dhamaake ki zarurat hoti hai." When Nishad is arrested by the police, he remembers the views of the Punjabi poet Paash. Moments before he is shot, Nishad twirls his moustache like the way freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad did. Nishad is also dressed like Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army, wearing his signature blue scarf. He gets the most moving scene in the film where in a moment of vulnerability, he confesses to Gaura that he wasn't able to sit with her in peace for even five minutes. In contrast, Ayan mentions to Aditi that he never sees in her eyes the passion that he sees in Gaura's eyes for Nishad.
At one point, Chandrabhan (Shubrajyoti Bharat) narrates a story from Ramayana where people from a village choose to be in darkness because it made Lord Ram's palace appear brighter from their unlit houses, signifying how people learn to live with the status quo. Later, Brahmdutt warns Ayan to not break the power balance—"Santulan mat bigadiye." Chandrabhan reiterates to Ayan that Brahma made the hierarchical rules of society and that we have no right to break that balance. The film questions the very need for this balance. Lekin Raja bananna hi kyun hai? Bas aise log chahiye jo hero ka wait na karein. Only those who benefit from the power balance try to preserve it. This topic of santulan harks back to Vishal Bhardwaj's Maqbool. There too, two policemen, Pandit (Om Puri) and Purohit (Naseeruddin Shah), kept referring to shakti ka santulan—the balance of power. They used to say, "Shakti ka santulan bahut zaroori hai is sansar mein. Aag ke liye pani ka darr bana rehna chahiye." For them too, the balance of power is in their self-interest and is maintained when rival gang members eliminate each other. It meant less work for them and they continued to get money from Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur).
Article 15 also comments on the tyranny of distance that makes a lot of us forget the reality. Chandrabhan wonders that every day he hears news about violent crimes from other places and they all seem to be distant. But, in reality, nothing is distant as the one who took part in the violent crime sat next to him for twelve years. Lekin duur kuch hota nahin hai. The distance of time and space is only an illusion and these discriminatory practices have been happening all around us. Ayan's troubles in Laalgaon make Aditi ask him if he feels that he has entered the planet Mars. It is not Mars, it is Earth, it is happening all around us, she says. The film is trying to 'educate' people who think that these are far-off places.
In the last scene of Mulk, we see a young boy wearing a skull cap and the jersey of the Indian cricket team with Dhoni's name on it. Along with films, cricket is a unifying force in a nation that is dealing with numerous fault lines every day. Mulk which opened with a chapter on separation (juda khuda), ended on a note of unification. Likewise, during the final moments of Article 15, Ayan questions the caste of an old woman, who sells food by the road. He asks her to give food to all the policemen with him. When she is about to respond, a truck passes by with the words 'Mera Bharat Mahaan' written behind it. The woman's response is never heard in the cacophony of the truck's noise. We can only hear the policemen laughing. It is on this note that the film ends where it reiterates the spirit of equality of all humans and tries to drown out the noises that create a sense of discrimination among them.