Article 15 movie review: Ayushmann Khurrana's restraint fits this overwhelming, gutsy take on Dalit abuse
Article 15 is the best that Indian cinema can be in these troubled times if it chooses to hold a mirror up to our society.
castAyushmann Khurrana, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub (credited Here As Zeeshan Ayyub), Sayani Gupta, Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa, Sushil Pandey, Ronjini Chakraborty, Isha Talwar, Sumbul Touqeer, Ashish Verma, Nasser
Language: Hindi with some English
Bade bade logan ke iskool kaalej
Aur bhaiya tuition alag se
Hamre bachauan ke jimme majoori
Kahte hain ka hoee padh ke
Big people study in schools and colleges
And brother, in addition they get tuitions
Our children are obliged to do hard labour
They are told, what will studying get you?
(Extract from 'Kahab Toh Lag Jayee Dhak Se')
A Dalit woman leads a group of fellow Dalits singing this popular folk song about poverty and inequality in the opening moments of Article 15. It is a catchy tune with a light touch that belies its poignant subject. The manner in which it is used here is also unusual in the context of Bollywood.
First, in recent years, the number of Hindi film duets and group songs fronted by a female voice has fallen sharply in comparison with songs led by male singers. Second, this particular woman – Gaura (played by Sayani Gupta) – is Dalit, a member of India’s most oppressed community and one that has more or less disappeared from mainstream Hindi cinema for about three decades now, barring exceptions like Neeraj Ghaywan’s lovely Masaan (2015), in contrast with India’s other language cinemas such as Tamil, Marathi and Malayalam that show far greater awareness of caste.
That producer-director-writer Anubhav Sinha has chosen to kick off Article 15 with 'Kahab Toh Lag Jayee Dhak Se', featuring Gaura instead of a high-caste male messiah of Dalits speaks volumes about his sincerity towards the issues he explores in this gutsy, gut-wrenching expose of caste oppression.
The film draws its title from Article 15 of the Indian Constitution that forbids discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It is set in a village called Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh where the IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted. Despite his good intentions, he finds himself initially at sea here because of his skeletal understanding of the caste system.
An intelligently crafted scene in Article 15 serves as an education for Ayan whose liberal background combined with caste privilege at birth has allowed him the luxury – a luxury life does not grant Dalits – of growing up ignorant of caste. In that gently humorous passage, it becomes clear as Ayan quizzes his colleagues about their individual jaati that he knows nothing about this country’s exploitative, congenitally assigned social divisioning beyond what he has learnt in theory from textbooks: that Hindu society is divided into four varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.
What causes Ayan to attempt a study of caste is the rape and murder of two Dalit girls whose bodies are found hanging from a tree soon after his arrival in Lalgaon.
As he proceeds with the investigation against all odds and gets acquainted with Gaura, his own colleague Jatav (Kumud Mishra) and the underground Dalit resistance leader Nishad (Zeeshan Ayyub), he is schooled in the magnitude of India’s caste problem.
All this takes place against the backdrop of the formation of a united Brahmin-Dalit political front in UP.
Films about marginalised communities are often made to stress the benevolence of progressives from dominant social groups. A striking example is the blatant white saviour complex of that appalling Hollywood film Green Book, winner of 2019’s Best Picture Oscar. Article 15 walks a tightrope to ensure that even as it uses Khurrana’s stardom to draw attention to its concerns and utilises Ayan’s quest for knowledge to enlighten the audience about caste, the screenplay does not get condescending towards Dalits and does not write him, a Brahmin, as a patron of the downtrodden who Brahminsplains caste to those suffering most at its hands.
Besides, although Dalits are victims of criminal discrimination and violence in this film, the portrayal of the community is layered and not limited to teary scenes of nameless persons wallowing in victimhood. The Dalits of Article 15 are also its leaders and warriors, and Ayan is an ally, not a boss.
Nishad and Gaura risk everything to battle injustice. Alongside them exist silent sufferers too as does the very believable Jatav who plays along with existing practices for his survival. And when the motivation for the rape and murder of young Shanu and Mamta is revealed, we learn that they were not bechari abla naaris of Old Bollywood but brave fighters for Dalit rights and martyrs to their cause.
That said, while Article 15’s two most prominent women – Gaura and Ayan’s journalist-activist girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) – are certainly tough characters, they remain in the woman-behind-the-man mould while at every level the reins remain in the hands of men. This may have passed muster in another Bollywood offering, but must be mentioned here since Article 15 has raised the bar for itself with its approach to caste representation.
A conventional interpretation of this film may be that Ayan is its hero, but in fact the writing and direction skillfully foreground Nishad and make him an equal protagonist although he gets less face time than the former. This is achieved through various means including the use of Nishad alone for a powerful, occasional voiceover, the build-up of anticipation before his introductory appearance, the casting of the always-brilliant Zeeshan Ayyub (Raanjhanaa, Shahid) in the role, and the treatment of the finale.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) At first, I was conflicted about Khurrana hanging around in the frame looking grim while a troupe of rappers belt out the anthem of protest, 'Shuru Karein Kya', in the end. As the number grew on me though, I became aware that I was on edge, worrying that Sinha was about to ruin his beautiful film near the finishing stretch by getting Khurrana to break into a dance and perhaps even throw a glammed-up Ayyub and Gupta in sexy clothes into the mix, because, well, that’s what happens in those thingies called ‘item’ songs. My tension ebbed away though as I realised that this video is instead an inversion of that Bollywood cliché, and that Khurrana’s presence through the song was, at least for me, a reminder of Ayyub and Gupta’s absence. That said, I remain conflicted about the need for 'Shuru Karein Kya' at that point, coming as it did right after a deeply moving, uplifting climax. (Spoiler alert ends)
Where Article 15 really kills it with music is in its astounding use of 'Vande Mataram'. Twice. And both times I had to stifle sobs because the placement of the song in the narrative rips right through the agenda of hate being peddled by extremists currently appropriating 'Vande Mataram'.
Article 15 is a courageous work, not the least reason being that it is filled with references to current affairs from the Badaun hangings to the Una floggings and beyond. There was a time when “Mahantji” was a generic title, here though the allusion cannot be lost on any individual who has not been living under a rock in recent years. Before persecution complexes kick in, let this be said: Anubhav Sinha spares no one in Article 15, not Hindutvavaadi politicians, not Dalit netas who use the community to rise in politics and then treat them with disdain, not the media who were up in arms against the 2012 Delhi bus gangrape but are rarely as stirred by the atrocities on women of the hinterland, not cowards who wear a mask of “neutrality” as a means of self-preservation, not members of marginalised groups who become fierce proponents of the marginalisers’ agenda once they themselves are in positions of power, not even Gandhi.
Nishad’s statement, “Hum kabhi Harijan ho jaate hai, kabhi Bahujan ho jaate hai, bas jan nahin ban paa rahey hai ki Jan Gan Man mein hamari bhi ginti ho jaaye” (sometimes we are called Harijan, sometimes we are labelled Bahujan, but we have never managed to be just jan, people, so that we can be counted among India’s general citizenry), could well be seen as the film’s way of noting that while the Mahatma – who popularised the term Harijan (Children of God) – actively campaigned against untouchability, his interpretation of caste was flawed. However, the incorporation of a few bars from one of Gandhi’s favourite hymns, 'Vaishnava Janato', in 'Shuru Karein Kya' tells us that even if Article 15 is calling the great man out on his failings, it is not outrightly brushing him aside and continues to pay tribute to his overall vision.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) The casting of southern Indian acting stalwart Nasser as a government official taunting Ayan for his poor Hindi is a masterstroke – he is not a Hindi bhaashi himself and struggles with the language but backs those who seek to aggressively impose it on India as a whole and have turned it into yet another tool of divisiveness since Independence. (Spoiler alert ends)
Sinha’s unfaltering direction is backed by Ewan Mulligan’s unsparing cinematography and a strong cast.
That Ayushmann Khurrana throws himself into the stoicism and moral dilemmas of Ayan after the impertinence and amorality of his Akash in 2018’s Andhadhun and is convincing in both is a testament to his versatility. Sayani Gupta too has a knack of hitting the bull’s eye in vastly varied roles – if she could so thoroughly immerse herself in the part of a glamorous city-bred journalist in the glossy but superficial online series Four More Shots Please! and deliver as immersive a performance in Article 15’s realistic circumstances, she can do anything. And Ayyub remains his own stiffest competition in successive roles as he gets more remarkable with each one.
The entire cast seems to be playing a round of “Who Is The More Brilliant Actor?” Is it Kumud Mishra who reaches into himself to find the very soul of Jatav? Or Manoj Pahwa playing the incorrigible status-quoist Brahmdutt? Or Sumbul Touqeer who embodies the guilelessness of a child caught in a web of cruelty woven by adults?
The contest for the best talent among them rivals the search for the best-written line. Sinha, whose Mulk skewered Islamophobia, outdoes himself here in the company of his co-writer Gaurav Solanki. I began taking notes during the interval so that I would not forget Aditi’s “Hero nahin chahiye, bas aise log chahiye jo hero ka wait na karein” (I/we don’t need a hero, what is needed are people who do not wait around for a hero), or the hilarious scenes in which Jatav misunderstands an English swear word, or “Daliton ke Robin Hood”, or Brahmdutt’s earnest “Aap se nivedan hai Sir, santulan mat bigaadiye” (I beg you Sir, don’t disrupt the balance), or “If everyone becomes equal then who will be king?” or...and then I gave up because there were too many worth noting down.
Each eloquent sentence spoken in Article 15 feels like an arrow released from a taut bowstring by an ace archer, cutting through bullshit and past the play-it-safe ramblings dominating the ongoing liberal discourse to say it like it is and say what needs to be said.
Watching this film is an overwhelming emotional experience. Article 15 is the best that Indian cinema can be in these troubled times if it chooses to hold a mirror up to our society, compelling us to confront the worst that we are and the best that we can be when we are not busy saving our own skins.
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