Director: Anubhav Sinha

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Manoj Pahwa, Sayoni Gupta

In Anubhav Sinha’s film Mulk, Taapsee Pannu plays a Hindu lawyer who defends her Muslim father-in-law against charges of terrorism. Towards the end, she asks in court: Who decides what is terrorism? Kya untouchability terrorism hai?

In Article 15, Anubhav establishes that untouchability is, in fact, terrorism. And perhaps it’s more dangerous because it’s a daily lived reality that dictates people’s jobs, living conditions, where they worship, how they eat and much more. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth but in much of India, caste continues to constitute identity. Article 15 is that rare thing – a mainstream Hindi film that confronts this horror. For that alone, it deserves applause.

In Article 15, Anubhav and co-writer Gaurav Solanki structure a social cause as a police procedural. We are told that the film is fiction though it’s obviously inspired by the notorious 2014 Badaun gang-rape and murder case in which two young girls, both minors, were found hanging from a tree.  Ayushmann Khurrana is Ayan, a cop who leads the investigative team to unravel the heinous crime in Laalgaon, a small town somewhere in UP. Ayan describes it as ‘the wild, wild west.’ Ayan is a stand-in for people like us – urban, educated, upper-class Indians. He’s a caste-blind, St. Stephen-educated Brahmin, who is so Westernized that his girlfriend calls him firangi. In one of the film’s best scenes, he attempts to understand the various divisions in his team and is told that even within the most suppressed, there is a hierarchy. He explodes at the absurdity of it.

The film seems to stumble on Ayushmann Khurrana’s stardom. Article 15 wants to establish him as the savior hero so we get the sprayed-to-perfection hair and slow-motion walk

This is a world of horrific oppression and DOP Ewan Mulligan envelops it in a gloomy darkness. Key scenes take place at night. The fog of lies is literal as mist and clouds of dust swirl. A fellow cop pleads with Ayan not to disturb the santulan or balance. But Anubhav wants to do exactly that. He wants to shatter our comfortable belief that in 21st century India, caste no longer matters. So we see close-ups of the limp bodies of the dead girls. Which is followed by a routine conversation about how to loosen the ropes and lower them to the ground. Anubhav wants us to understand exactly what injustice looks and feels like. Subtlety is not his strong point but Anubhav has a talent for staging drama. Aided by an effective background score by Mangesh Dhakde, Anubhav keeps the narrative grim and gripping.

In places though, the messaging seems to overwhelm the storytelling. The film is trying to make too many points and somewhere along the way, the various threads scatter. Article 15 is of course about the brutality of the caste system but it’s also about Ayan’s journey to find himself – he’s a reluctant IPS officer. In one scene, his girlfriend says, tum jo khud ho, tum dhoondna bhi nahi chahte. But their relationship isn’t fleshed out enough. Which is also the case with Nishad, played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Gaura played by Sayani Gupta. Nishad is a firebrand leader, described as Daliton ka Robin Hood but the writing doesn’t do justice to his character. Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa, who also play cops, bring more heft. Both are such skilled performers. It’s a real pleasure to see them spar.

In Mulk, Anubhav Sinha gave us a more intimate story of a family that we could emotionally invest in. Article 15 doesn’t allow for that

Much of the load is on Ayushmann who is well cast in the role of a decent man who becomes an alien in his own country. His anger and frustration has conviction – he is especially good in a scene in which he’s explaining to a CBI officer why it’s important do the right thing. But the film seems to stumble on his stardom. Article 15 wants to establish him as the savior hero so we get the sprayed-to-perfection hair and slow-motion walk. Ayushmann is also saddled with some clunky dialogue. In one scene, he says, “It’s messed up and I will un-mess it.”

In Mulk, Anubhav gave us a more intimate story of a family that we could emotionally invest in. Article 15 doesn’t allow for that. But Anubhav succeeds in showing us that the heart of darkness isn’t in some far-flung corner of India. It’s within us because at the very least we’ve supported the inhumane 2000-year old caste system with little things – like keeping separate dishes for the house help. In one scene, a man enters a gutter to unclog it and emerges drenched in filth. His work keeps our lives sanitised – literally and figuratively. Article 15 compels you to recognise this. And that is a considerable achievement.

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