Article 15, directed by Anubhav Sinha, is centered on two murders and a disappearance – all of them girls, 15-year-olds, and Dalits. Their dead bodies were hung from a tree, early in the morning, for all to see. A different place, in a different part of the world, would have perhaps inspired a tsunami of outrage. But in Lal Gaon, a village in Uttar Pradesh, there’s hardly a ripple of discontent.
The village’s police department, sluggish and indifferent, is used to such incidents: “It’s a case of honour killing, sir,” the cops say in a practised monotone. But Lal Gaon has a new “sir” – Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), bred in Europe, graduated from St Stephen’s – who, like a blank slate, is hungry for answers.
Like Mulk, Sinha’s last movie, Article 15, too, starts on a shaky, uneven turf. Article 15 – a fundamental right enshrined in the Indian constitution forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth – is central to the movie, particularly caste discrimination.
So, in line with mediocre Bollywood films needlessly reinforcing their thesis statement, Article 15’s initial scenes have inordinate conversations about, and references to, caste, and enough signifiers demarcating the good and the evil.
When Ayan asks for a bottle of water, on the way to Lal Gaon, his driver tries to dissuade him, informing him that they’re crossing the village of Pasis, a pig-rearing Dalit sub-caste. A few scenes before, we see a statue of B.R. Ambedkar getting drenched in rain; wearing a glass and a suit, the statue looks on, as the heavens continue to cry, like a helpless, mute spectator.
A cop at the Lal Gaon police station, Brahmanand (Manoj Pahwa), emphasises his caste identity by invoking his last name, “Singh”. On the first day of work, Brahmanand makes Ayan meet a local curt contractor, Anshu, who has close connections with the senior cops and an MLA. Anshu’s stereotypical introduction, his mannerisms, all of them are a dead giveaway: that this guy is trouble. These small scenes prime you for a certain kind of movie – a certain kind of ‘message’ – that risks resembling an earnest pamphlet.
The trump cards
But the film soon dispels these fears. Article 15, in fact, reveals its trump cards without revealing them at all. It comes alive in small, daily exchanges, such as the one where the cop Jatav (Kumud Mishra), a Dalit, complains to his co-worker about the perils of identity politics. He’s become a cop, he says, with a lot of struggle but “they” – the other Dalits in the village – see him as “Singham”, a saviour. Jatav doesn’t have much to give: life has already taken away a lot. Subsequent scenes, similarly, are a dance between light and dark – black and white mysteriously colliding to become grey, a no man’s land of human conscience where rationalisations are immediate, realisations rare (if at all).
Article 15 also takes a perceptive look at our ‘systems’ – the police, the media – and comes to a conclusion not very different from the Marathi movie Court (2015): that systems aren’t insular monoliths; that they comprise people like you and me, individuals with (wilful and inadvertent) biases. There’s no running away from this movie, or a story like this, because it circles back to us too: city slickers, with survivors’ guilt, espousing progressive politics.
Besides, it’s heartening to note that such a takeaway comes on the back of solid filmmaking: a riveting story, with enough complexities, told with impressive clarity and art. Ewan Mulligan’s cinematography, especially outdoors, precisely captures the layers of hinterland life: an idyllic place, on surface, that hides many horrors in its heart.
Sinha has also assembled a reliable acting ensemble: Khurrana, eager as ever to choose a challenging part, binds the film together, functioning as a springboard that allows ideas, and other actors, to flourish. The finest moments in the movie, though, materialise in tense exchanges between Pahwa and Mishra’s characters, functioning as a quasi-metaphor for two different ‘Indias’: one can’t speak, the other can’t listen. These snatches are memorable, so are the dialogues (by Sinha and Gaurav Solanki): clever, biting, unexpectedly witty.
Sinha’s filmography, in less than a year, has undergone a drastic transformation. He has traded his penchant for making formulaic escapist films with social dramas that hit home, tackling subjects that don’t promise either box-office success or acceptance within the industry which, at the moment, can’t seem to look beyond Narendra Modi. Mulk and Article 15 don’t look like movies as much as a conversation with oneself: an act of self-examination, of introspection, of owning and stepping up – all laced with the hope that, perhaps someday, exoneration would be possible. Cinema can never undo the damage life has done, but at its finest and truest, it can help us feel, empathise and remember. Remembering is the most basic and yet the most significant step.