Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Anubhav Sinha has come a long way from Cash, Ra.One and Tum Bin 2. The values propagated by his recent movies – diversity, secularity, evolution, awareness – are reflected in the arc of his filmography. Hot on the heels of Mulk comes Article 15, another urgent ode to one India from the other. Mulk had a courtroom and a progressive voice – Taapsee Pannu’s character is a Hindu in a family of persecuted Muslims – to directly air its concerns about xenophobia and intolerance. Article 15 employs a similar ‘outsider’ trope to address caste discrimination through the lens of the (adapted) Badaun gangrape case. It cuts deeper and darker into Uttar Pradesh, a State (and a state) that best reflects the nation’s mass rhetoric. Only, unlike most socially charged dramas, this film is mature enough to recognize that “change” is merely a dramatic construct invented by the arts to bookend a narrative. And that the conclusion of a story, in happiness or sadness or redemption, isn’t the same as the conclusion of a problem.
To understand why Article 15 is such a remarkable film, it’s important to understand its protagonist first. It’s important to understand who he is, and why a Bob Dylan song scores his introduction scene. The man’s name is Ayan Ranjan. Ayan is an IPS officer; his first posting is in an obscure village named Laalgaon. But he is not your filmy hinterland cop. On the contrary, Ayan is your woke “foreign-return” burbie who thinks this stint is his punishment for responding to a superior with a “cool, sir”. Ayan is an observer who regularly relays his angrez thoughts (“The Indian countryside is beautiful”) as Whatsapp messages to Aditi, a Delhi-based journalist friend who reports on gender inequality and human rights. He shares his first impressions (“The driver frowned upon my buying water from a ‘lower-caste’ village”), she wonders aloud from a city why rural incidents aren’t as widely reported as the Nirbhaya case, and their discussions are fraught with lyrical undercurrents (“You want a hero, Aditi” – “No, I just want someone who doesn’t wait for heroes”). Ayan’s interpretation of these exchanges might read as: How many roads must a man walk down / before you call him a man?
In short, Ayan is us. He is our eyes and ears. He is uninformed, in a uniform. With an idealistic mind whose grasp of the country’s grassroot issues – caste hierarchy, political posturing, SC/ST labour strikes, honour killings – is mostly limited to the language of Dylan’s poetic protest music. He rolls his eyes at the Dalit-Brahmin divide amongst his subordinates. His brain probably processes these regressive customs as: How many years can people exist / before they’re allowed to be free? Ayan has the kind of privileged outlook to life that makes pasting copies of the Constitution’s Article 15 onto the police pinboard feel like a grand gesture of heroism. But the Vande Mataram theme that scores his gesture is more satirical than patriotic in his head. The strength of Article 15, therefore, lies in how it internalizes Ayan’s gaze, his perspective, to reflect its own physicality.
For instance, the village is perpetually misty, and the nights, murky. The theme of doom – a guttural instrumental groan peppered with low drumbeats – scores his investigation, as if to suggest that nothing is what it looks like; there are secrets. There are shadows. “Don’t disturb the santulan (equilibrium),” he is often warned. The camerawork is deliberately atmospheric, to frame the sort of noirish imagery that fits someone like Ayan’s perception of a hostile new land. In his head, he is the classic detective-in-mysterious-small-town device. The air is ripe with fear. You can almost imagine him vividly describing his surroundings to Aditi: The two bodies hanging from the tree cut through the fog, the third girl is missing, they were raped on a bus, the local contractor is the prime suspect, the CBI wants a cover-up job, inspector Brahmadutt Singh (a superb Manoj Pahwa) is strangely cagey, constable Jatav (the reliable Kumud Mishra) is naive but loyal, the girl’s sister (Sayani Gupta) is dating a passionate Dalit leader (a scene-stealing Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub), a Hindutva monk in saffron robes is the favourite to win the elections…and every character knows more than they let on. How many times can a man turn his head / and pretend that he just doesn’t see?
Ayushmann Khurrana lends the perfect balance of culture and culture-shock to Ayan. In many ways, this role, like Taapsee’s in Mulk, reflects his own rise as a smart no-nonsense outsider in the surname-heavy Hindi film industry. His “what the f*ck?” expression is organic. He always looks on the verge of exploding: a suppressed energy that informs Ayan’s dangerous dive into the heart of darkness. He is in charge but barely in control. The more he learns, the lesser the film becomes about him. Most importantly, Khurrana’s performance is such that it allows the story, in a daring leap of faith before the third act, to zoom out and reveal the macro narrative in which Laalgaon is just a dot.
It might seem like Article 15 is distracted here, but what it’s really doing is defining the context – the insidious outer circle – that often tends to get consumed by the close-ended theatricality of a true-crime tale. Beyond Laalgaon’s stillness lies the elections, assassinations, fake encounters, tragic heroes. The noirish mood disippitates, because we aren’t really seeing the world through Ayan’s eyes anymore. We’re seeing the world that his eyes, and our eyes, might need a telescope to examine. We’re seeing (solar) systems that we aren’t conditioned to identify. It’s as if the film is elevated into something more here, ironically, by playing down its own significance and size. Corruption is exposed. But there are no real resolutions. Questions are raised. Hopefully, by now, it’s not just Ayan but also the villagers that are thinking: The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…