Anubhav Sinha's Article 15 peddles a mythology rather than engaging honestly with the reality of caste
Hindi cinema has been, for the past decade, producing small films that might have been unimaginable earlier – like Udaan (2010), Titli (2014), Masaan (2015), Talvar (2015) and now Article 15 (2019) – all of them boldly dealing with issues like urban lawlessness, human rights abuses, corruption and caste discrimination. But some of these issues are complex in nature, and one cannot be unequivocal in praising these films that, in order to drive home a message, indulge in oversimplifications.
How will, as in Titli, a broken hand save a signatory from signing a document when there is a provision for a thumb impression to serve as a substitute, though with due attestation? Article 15 deals with an especially complicated issue – caste and caste politics – but instead of merely questioning the ‘truth’ in the film, I will focus on what its representations imply about political mythmaking.
Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 claims to be fiction as is usually done when films try to recreate a controversial event, and it is broadly a thriller based on the Badaun rape case of 2014, where two teenage Dalit girls were found hanging from a tree. The police made out a case that the girls (cousins) were in a lesbian relationship and had killed themselves when it came to light, and later that it was an honour killing. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) also stepped in and discounted the gang rape hypothesis, which was also offered. Later it turned out that they had indeed been gang raped, but with the participation of local policemen.
In the film, a young Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted to a small town in Uttar Pradesh and is confronted by a case involving the death by hanging of two Dalit girls and the disappearance of a third. Ayan Ranjan is the son of a senior civil servant and formerly from St Stephen’s College. His love interest Aditi is an activist in Delhi. He has been posted to Lalgaon as punishment for cheeking the Home Secretary. Reviewers have compared the film to Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), which is about race relations in the Deep South, but caste is a more complex issue, and structuring the Badaun case as a straightforward thriller with a clear solution brings its own share of problems.
Like a host of other Hindi thrillers, it gives us its slant at the very beginning with a song sung by Dalit activists led by the character Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the missing girl. The song is about the social divide between the haves and the have-nots and the rousing way in which it is sung virtually installs its message as central.
The film also demarcates its Dalits and non-Dalits very clearly.
Among the policemen, Bramhdutt is a Thakur, Mayank is Brahmin, while Jatav is Dalit. There's also a shadowy Dalit activist named Nishad, seemingly in a close relationship with Gaura.
There is also the upper-caste Anshu Nahariya, who wields much power because he is related to a political bigwig. Amidst all this is a political campaign underway with Brahmins and Dalits coming together as under Mayawati. Among the Dalits themselves a hierarchy is invoked, Pasis being below the Jatavs and the Chamars. All this spells complexity, but compared to the ground-level reality in India, it is quite simple.
In the Badaun case, the dead girls were Dalit Mauryas, considered almost of equal rank in caste hierarchy to Yadavs, who are OBCs. All the five people accused of gang rape, including two policemen, were Yadavs. There was also evidence that the older of the two dead girls was in a long-term relationship with one of those accused in the gang rape. The two political rivals in Uttar Pradesh are Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, who take their positions as protectors of the Dalits and OBCs respectively. During its unfolding, the film asserts that caste antagonisms are between the upper-castes on one side and the Dalits and OBCs on the other, but the Badaun case, if it is to be interpreted in caste-antagonism terms, suggests that it is between the Yadavs as OBCs and an upper-level Dalit group just below the Yadavs. The Manichaean divisions suggested by the film are hardly ‘true’, because the Dalits are themselves divided acutely between those who have benefitted vastly from governmental benefits like those in the civil services, and those who have not like those who suffocate inside drains. In order to perpetuate its simplified view of caste society, the film makes all the rapists upper-caste. Even among the policemen, the key innocent one is Jatav, the sole Dalit among the lot.
Article 15 is a ‘thriller’ and a key requirement for a thriller is that it should have a clear solution in mind and must deliver ‘justice’ to the spectator. When it takes up political issues like caste divisions and antagonisms, it must also ensure that the justice it delivers reflects an ‘acceptable’ political viewpoint. But when it works its fiction on something political that received wide coverage in the newspapers, it can be argued that there is another obligation it must fulfil: It must embrace the complexities in the actual events by at least acknowledging that the story cannot have a satisfactory ‘happy ending’ — or justice fully delivered. But this last requirement negates the first and makes it impossible for the subject to be tackled in the format of a thriller without ‘politically correct’ distortions.
The new ‘realism’ in Hindi films, of which Article 15 provides a striking instance, relies on actual locales and high-quality supporting acting. With the exception of Gaura and Nishad, who less resemble rural Dalits than the kind of people populating NGOs in the metropolises, the characters are plausibly drawn.
But in terms of its content, it is peddling a mythology rather than engaging honestly with political reality.
The film tries to foreground the Constitution as a moral guide to caste relations, although it also describes caste as a 2000-year-old practice; the question is how something committed to paper around 1950 can undo something so ancient, the origins of which one can only speculate about.
The popular film in India is committed to picturing the world as it should be, instead of the way it is, and it has been peddling mythologies ever since DG Phalke, but this is embedded deeply in the way people describe themselves. The virtuous, innocent, enterprising, courageous protagonists of popular cinema are personal ideals we pretend to emulate. I have heard astute businessmen describing the way of life portrayed in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! as an accurate depiction of their own families. When Indian cinema ventures into political territory, it follows the same principles and furthers similar myths. Raazi (2018), for instance, proposes that people can be so affected by patriotic sentiments that they will do evil to their own families in the cause of the nation. Since national enemies are both within the nation and outside, would parents in India who see their children embroiled in financial crimes hand them over to the Enforcement Directorate? Each of these mythologies has authors entrenched in classes, and if Raazi is broadly from the patriotic Right, Article 15 is from the liberal Left.
The most incredible creations in Article 15 are the protagonist Ayan Ranjan and Aditi; Ayan studied in St Stephens College, which suggests the two are essentially the kind of people associated with Lutyens’ Delhi. They are both products of privilege, but they are made emblems of concern completely innocent of caste relations. Since they had the best kind of education, would they not have learned something about caste and its complexities, and would Ranjan need to be taught that by local police constables?
A narrative convention in films where outsiders strive to ‘cleanse the system’ is that the outsiders must be without culpability, but products of privilege in India cannot claim such a status.
I find it particularly significant that at the conclusion, Ayan Ranjan is shown wading in a swamp as a sign of his nobility — when the other policemen are doing it routinely without getting such praise! One gathers from the portrayal that privileged liberals from Lutyens’ Delhi, when they exhibit concern, see themselves as outsiders not really implicated in the socio-political mess that is India.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 12:58:21 IST