Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
One of the biggest challenges of writing for our cinema is in crafting the interval block, which should cap off everything that came earlier (it should be a mini-climax, so to speak), and also leave you with enough emotion to tide you across the break. Anubhav Sinha's Article 15 does this beautifully. The film begins with a song (Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind), and it ends with a song (the Narsinh Mehta bhajan, Vaishnava Jana To), and the interval point, too, features a song: Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's Vande Mataram, tuned by Tagore. The lyrics celebrate the wonders of the motherland, and they serve as an ironic counterpoint to the action on screen, where a frustrated and angry cop pins up a copy of Article 15 of the Indian Constitution on a notice board. Article 15 prohibits discrimination of all kinds (the issue, here, is casteism), but this ideal is a galaxy away from the local reality in Lalgaon, Uttar Pradesh. I was reminded of Deewar, where Saare jahaan se achcha echoes over the young Vijay and his mother discussing how to get Vijay's younger brother into school despite their poverty. When contrasted with the inequalities in our society, the rah-rah-ism of these anthems becomes a joke. Only, no one's laughing.
The cop by the notice board is Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), and he is knee-deep into an investigation into the rape of three Dalit girls, two of whom have been murdered. (The third girl is missing, and the search for her makes this film a cross between the 2014 Badaun gang rape and Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning). The procedural aspect of Article 15 is simplistic and weakly written (the screenplay is by the director and Gaurav Solanki), but one could argue that this angle is really a MacGuffin, and the real point of the movie is to make its upper-crust target audience do what Ayan does: to stop with the empty platitudinising, and actually step into the muck and mire that lies beyond the shining edifices of modern-day India.
Article 15 may be about "them", but it is unapologetically targeted at "us". The girls were raped because they dared to ask for three more rupees for their daily labour, and Ayan, at one point, tells a supercilious CBI officer that this money is the equivalent of a few drops of the mineral water he is drinking. It's also the equivalent of a few kernels of overpriced popcorn at our local multiplex. Like many of us, Ayan is an outsider in the Indian heartlands. He's Brahmin by birth. He's been educated in posh schools and he's been to Europe. He became a Civil Servant as per his father's wishes. In conversations with his wife, Aditi (Isha Talwar), he seems to think in English. When he heads to his posting, the book by his side is Nehru's Discovery of India. (Had Ayan been more clued in, he might have opted for more insidery reading material, say, Ambedkar's Castes in India.)
This "cluelessness" — rather, the slow clueing-in — of Ayan elevates this story from the White Saviour template. Ayan isn't the expert who descends on Lalgaon with burning zeal. He isn't like the Amitabh Bachchan character in Pink, who many people found troubling. They asked: Why do these women need to be saved by a man? I looked at it differently. I looked at the character as an ally who just happens to be a man. The battle for social equality is too vast to be cordoned off by gender or caste. As much as we need the Pa Ranjith films that speak to the oppressed and say "Don't let this shit happen to you, don't take it lying down," we also need films like Pink and Article 15, which talk to the privileged and say "Don't let this shit happen if you are in a position to do something about it."
Besides, Ayan isn't some lone warrior. Article 15 surrounds Ayan with other "types", other stakeholders in this battle. Chief among them is the anti-Ayan: a Dalit activist named Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who is mocked by a dominant-caste character as "Dalit-on ka Robin Hood". Nishad is the insider, a fighter belonging to the Bhim Sangharsh Sangh. After a lynching incident, he orders Dalits to stop working, and this what-if scenario opens Ayan's eyes (and ours) to the dystopia that would result. Animal corpses would pile up. (There's no one to skin them.) The streets would overflow with garbage and sewage. (There's no one to pick up the trash, or clean the drains.) Ayan tells Aditi, "It's messed up. And I will un-mess it." But he really is in over his head.
But for Article 15 to fully unleash its power, Nishad needed to be more than just a bit player. He is one of many characters who are outlined but not meaningfully fleshed out, and therefore appear tokenistic. Like Ayan's friend Satyendra (Akash Dabhade), who's now a zonal officer. Or Panicker (Nasser), who's a borderline cartoon. Or Aditi, who's Ayan's conscience and little more. Or even Ayan himself. Ayushmann Khurrana plays him as a blank slate on whom we can inscribe ourselves, but this colourlessness is pushed to the extreme. If asked to describe him, you'd say he is a "decent man", and that's it. There's the nagging feeling that no one can be this ignorant about something as prevalent like caste. Even Aditi knows that the mothers of a generation used separate utensils for the domestic help. Article 15 is, in a way, Ayan's coming-of-age story, but it would have been more impactful if the protagonist's transition to crusader had been detailed with depth.
The stunning shot of two of the girls, the victims, hanging from a giant tree is rendered like a still life. It's too painterly an image for this movie, but it crystallises the issue at hand into one indelible visual
At times, the writing groans under the weight of all the research that's been shaped into plot points. Some of this works brilliantly, like the legend of villagers choosing to remain in darkness so that Lord Rama's palace can glow more brightly. It's a terrifying reminder of how religion can result in self-effacement, how the glorification of gods can cause the suppression of mortals. Another excellent aside is the portrayal of different types of Dalits, both in the casteist sense (some "communities" rank higher than others) and in terms of how they end up (from the same school, one student grows up to be a rebel while another has subsumed himself into the System). But some of it — like a gimmicky rally for Brahmin-Dalit unity, or even the scene of the lynching — comes off like socially conscious wallpaper. They don't get the attention they deserve.
The actors do a lot to bridge these dissonances. Manoj Pahwa is spectacular as Brahmadatt, a cop who is nicer to street dogs (he feeds them biscuits) than he is to his fellow men. The actor makes us see a man who comes with a sense of entitlement, and yet, is forced to live with fear. "Santulan mat bigadiye," he pleads with Ayan. Please don't rock the boat. The scene of the film for me came after this plea. When Ayan walks away heedlessly, Brahmadutt's face hardens, and he runs towards his subordinate, Jatav (a terrific Kumud Mishra), to berate him. It's a superb illustration of the chain of command, and also of the hierarchies of caste. Brahmadutt can't say anything to the Brahmin, so he attacks the Dalit.
Mangesh Dhakde's score borders on horror-movie music, with a three-note riff (high-low-high) that suggests the rusty gates of hell yawning open. And yet, there's a surprising amount of humour, whether in discussions of caste or voting preferences. It's funny (to us) but the characters are dead-serious about all this, nowhere more so than when Brahmadutt asks a female coroner to cover up the fact that the girls were raped. If you feel that strongly about it, he says, write a few poems on Facebook. I gasped. The cinematography is by Ewan Mulligan, who also shot Mulk, Anubhav Sinha's previous (and in my book, much better) film, which took on Islamophobia. Lalgaon is drained of colour, and almost always covered in darkness or mist, as though hinting at the social realities that have shrouded this region in a pall of gloom. The stunning shot of two of the girls, the victims, hanging from a giant tree is rendered like a still life. It's too painterly an image for this movie, but it crystallises the issue at hand into one indelible visual.
If Article 15 seems a lesser film than Mulk, it's because it wants to be a muted melodrama, and that's a bit of a contradiction. It's more "Western" in style, and some of the more "Indian" flourishes end up looking odd. Take this line from Aditi, when Ayan tells her she wants a hero: "Hero nahin chahiye. Bas aise log chahiya jo hero ka wait na kare." Or take Nishad's breakdown before Gaura (an excellent Sayani Gupta, whose silent gazes seem to accuse all of us). He says his cause has made him unable to spend five minutes with her, gazing at the moon or sitting by the river — and it's too poetic a line in this cool milieu. (It would have fit perfectly in the heated atmosphere of Mulk.) When Nishad's placid voiceover tells us that more people are killed in the process of manual scavenging than at the border, it comes off not like a line but like a bit of research flung at us — and again, it would have fit perfectly in Mulk. From the days of Parasakthi and Awara and 12 Angry Men, the courtroom melodrama has always been the best medium to deliver a message. (What comes off as "preaching" outside the courtroom becomes fiery conversation inside.) To quote a Bhagat Singh line that's brought up in Article 15, it does take a loud voice to make the deaf hear — and few places are louder than a courtroom. Nishad's line works far better when converted into a visual. A manual scavenger sinks into black sewage. He surfaces, takes a deep breath and goes down again. When compared to this, Ayan's metaphorical "descent" into a swamp (while searching for the third girl) looks like caste tourism.