Early on in Anubhav Sinha‘s Article 15, an upwardly-mobile police constable tells IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) in passing of the dichotomy and inadequacy surrounding the “Ramrajya”, wherein an entire Dalit village had to remain in complete darkness in order to render more visible the illuminated realms of the public spectacle surrounding the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya. This casual reference in the film points towards the problematics of Dalit representation in the realm of the popular (and the majoritarian) fields of mainstream Hindi cinema. This article argues that Article 15 is mainstream savarna fare that co-opts and appropriates the Dalit “other” in order to satisfy the popular gaze, which is ideologically accustomed to the idea of the ‘Savarna Saviour’ narrative.
The main problem in the film is that, instead of critiquing and supplanting the Brahmanical idea of the Ramrajya as the supposed abode of order and democracy, it extends and subtly justifies the neo-Gandhian idea of it as the ideal status quo, thus perpetuating and reiterating something that was scathingly criticised by Bhimrao Ambedkar during his prolonged ideological battles with Gandhi. Ayushmann Khurrana’s character becomes emblematic of all those value systems that echo the contours of the neo-Gandhian Ramrajya, an attempt described by noted Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah as a savarna co-optation of the radical Dalit/bahujan movement to reiterate and sustain, rather than deconstruct, the caste status quo.
The film upholds and celebrates the character of Ayan Ranjan as a kind of urban, savarna Übermensch (a term used by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to refer to a superman-like figure who would redeem mankind), who, in the course of the narrative, becomes the sole saviour of the Dalits in the aftermath of the killing and alleged rape of minor Dalit girls by members of the Thakur clan. The irony of this gesture is that, while Ambedkar’s statue is shown as an overwhelming presence at the very beginning of the film, the narrative veers towards the celebration of a savarna figure who would finally emerge as the chosen protector of the Dalits against members of his own caste. This endless eulogisation of the savarna radical, however, happens at the altar of radical Dalit politics itself, which is shown to be too volatile and aggressive to creolise into any form of meaningful resistance. Sinha’s film shows a few Dalit/bahujan revolutionaries throwing torch flames and indulging in meaningless felonies to make their political statements heard. On the other hand, only Khurrana’s character, as the calm, articulate, woke savarna liberal, with access to the higher corridors of governmental power (he is eventually helped by a top bureaucrat at Delhi), could effectively resolve the problems and issues at hand, and thus finally rescue the distressed Dalit girl.
The eulogisation of Ayan Ranjan’s liberal politics could only be validated against the backdrop of a stereotypical Dalit revolutionary movement, which is portrayed as being more violent than meaningful. Kancha Ilaiah in his book, Why I Am Not a Hindu, writes, “Because of the nexus between brahminical forces within the revolutionary movement and the brahminical forces operating from outside, that is, bourgeois parties and Hindu institutions, the revolution has not only been delayed, it has been subverted, time and again.” In other words, the appropriation and co-optation of the Dalit revolutionary movement within the visual and representational registers of savarna politics, as is the case in Article 15, ensures that the Dalit movement is delayed and deferred indefinitely.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.