When it comes to messaging in movies, I side with what Mayer says in David Fincher’s Mank (and I might be paraphrasing): “Movies are for entertainment; if you want a message delivered go to Western Union.” Entertainment is not necessarily restricted to something that appeals only to our primal instincts; intellectual stimulation is also entertaining. Cinema as an artform is all encompassing: myth, action, social, biographical, utopian, and dystopian fantasies – all these sub-genres can coexist. Its canvas is too broad to be restricted to only dispensing messages. You have the neighbourhood library or the friendly pastor for that. As Baradwaj Rangan writes in his book Dispatches from the Wall Corner, “Art is too valuable to be consigned to the stultifying chore of chronicling the truth.” Also, bringing about societal change is not a cross I wish cinema to bear while society at large remains indifferent.
Having freed cinema from this Sisyphean task, it becomes easier to appreciate a movie that wraps a socially relevant “message” within an engaging narrative. One such movie is Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15. Article 15 is the second film in his ‘social’ trilogy, sandwiched between Mulk and Thappad. It hooks you to its world through the storytelling and over the course of its run time, shakes you out of your stupor subtly. The keyword being subtly because great art is rarely in-your-face and coaxing. It is mostly the kind that nudges you towards a certain realisation as you appreciate the flourish in its artistry.
The protagonist (Ayushmann Khurrana) is city-bred, English-speaking, Dylan-listening and blissfully caste-agnostic, like many of us who have never bothered about our own caste or that of the people we interact with. Article 15 pulls the protagonist (and hopes to pull a section of its audience) out of this blissful ignorance and places him right at the centre of the harsh reality. You see the most gruesome of acts performed on a marginalised section, but the craft of the movie comes through as it lingers on the basic day-to-day discriminations – the use of different vessels or the choice of profanities (which highlight the perceived indignity of labour). It is to Anubhav Sinha’s credit that he does not fill the movie with characters who exist in bland shades of black and white. There is someone who takes up the fight against the system (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in fine form), there is a person from the oppressed class whose idea of survival is to fit in with the oppressor (a brilliant Kumud Mishra) and there are a lot of supporting characters who are either resigned to their fate or use it to their advantage (depending on which side they belong to). This eclectic collection of realistic characters is Ayushmann’s window to a hitherto unknown world.
Ayushmann’s character starts out with the saviour complex of “I am going to clear this mess”. As the movie progresses and he closely witnesses this “system” in action, he comes down to the more realistic but better informed “I am trying my best, at least to the extent that I understand”. The foreign-educated, upper-caste young man that he is, it is not easy for him to comprehend an archaic system. Even when he succeeds at the end of the movie, he is well aware of the reality that he has won a small battle in a war that has been raging for centuries. That is the beauty of the movie: it does not show a rose-tinted view of the outside world; instead, it makes us look inside, at our lack of understanding and often indifference. For the folks lucky enough to be brought up with a certain privilege, the “good” ones among us who do not necessarily subscribe to the oppressor club, Article 15 carries with it a message – to acknowledge the privilege and realise the disparity. One cannot transform overnight into a saviour but developing a compassion is an excellent starting point. Dylan pointedly asks in his song “And how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” The answer, as always, is blowing in the wind – this movie makes you take a pause so you can notice it.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.