In Article 15, Anubhav Sinha continues the upper-caste project of brahminising anti-caste struggles
All the lower caste people in Article 15 are kept in the dark by the director, but it’s done on purpose, so Ayan Ranjan can shine more brightly.
(The author wishes to be identified by their Twitter handle for the purpose of this essay.)
May Lord Rama’s palace shine ever so bright.
There is a Rajput man in Article 15, he is a policeman from the looks of it, but his only job is to drive his master, the brahmin Ayan Ranjan, from one place to another in an AC chariot, oops, car with literal curtains on the window, to shield his eyes from the harsh sun and horrors of the “real India” outside. As he does this, he keeps telling stories to while away time. Right at the beginning he tells him a story that inadvertently became for me, the moral of this story. His story goes that Lord Rama was being welcomed by people from all the cities and villages with lamps, except one village, which was in complete darkness. He asks them why their village is dark. They tell him that a storm came and knocked out all the diyas (wicker lamps) they had lit, and then they saw, that in the darkness, King Rama’s palace shines even brighter. I don’t know why this story (like the 50 % success 50% failure statistic that I will elaborate on later) was shoe-horned into the narrative of Article 15 because it isn’t really a metaphor for anything within the film, but it depicts perfectly what Anubhav Sinha does with the dalits in the movie.
Nishad (Mohd Zeeshan Ayub), so obviously based on the real-life Bhim Army chief, Chandrashekhar Ravan Azad must die — that too offscreen. (Did Anubhav think for a second what kind of optics he is promoting by fictionally killing a man who is alive?) He must weep for the things he has lost. He must weep for the woman he can’t love and can’t marry. He must call off his strike so Ayan Ranjan’s investigation can be helped. He must spout words from Rohit Vemula’s suicide letter (taken piecemeal and uncredited) in a weird voice-over. All so that Ayan Ranjan can be the stoic brave savior with a smug smirk on his face at having solved all of India’s, oops rural India’s problems with one agonised yell of - “What the f*ck is going on here?!”
The other quasi-main character is the woman Nishad loves - Gaura (Sayani Gupta), fierce, powerful, strong but forever obsequious to Ayan Ranjan’s superiority. Her hair is permanently dishevelled maybe because the director is afraid that if they run a comb through it even once she will "stop looking like a Dalit." Her clothes and face have also been “dirtified” (I know that’s not a word) so she looks like "what a Dalit woman should look like." She is ostensibly an Ambedkarite who shouts 'Jai Bhim' but has forgotten his exhortation to Dalit women where he said, “Never regard yourself as Untouchables, live a clean life. Dress yourselves as touchable ladies. Never mind, if your dress is full of patches, but see that it is clean. None can restrict your freedom in the choice of your garments. Attend more to the cultivation of the mind and spirit of self-help.” She also has no role in Nishad’s life or his activities, she’s just...there. Like when he’s suddenly taken away by the police in her presence, she flops down in the middle of the street, instead of rushing to do something about it. Again an attitude completely contrary to Ambedkar’s advice to Dalit women, “Above all, let every girl [...] stand by her husband, claim to be her husband's friend and equal, and refuse to be his slave.”
Ayan’s girlfriend on the other hand is a true “modern” woman. She is his conscience keeper, the one he texts and calls on a daily basis sharing with her his troubles, his worries and gaining inspiration from her pep talks. She even knows that she should visit him when he’s suspended, a fact he very stoically doesn’t share with her. Yet when he meets her, he says that he wishes that he could see that glint in her eye, which Gaura has when she speaks of Nishad. Her eyes filled with glinting tears, she wordlessly hugs him. He has now earned, in the director’s and the audience's eyes, that adulation which Gaura blindly gives to Nishad.
Also read on Firstpost: Article 15's Good Brahmin-Bad Brahmin schtick isn't a patch on Fandry's deft handling of caste
Similarly there are two Dalit people in the system, the lady doctor who conducts the post-mortems on the girls and the policeman Jatav ji (Kumud Mishra) — both are offensively voiceless until Ayan Ranjan comes along and gives them the strength to voice their opinions. The doctor is “just an assistant” and has only got this job because her boss is out sick. She starts off doing a proper post-mortem of the two victims but Brahmadutt, the Thakur policeman (Manoj Pahwa), bullies her into shutting up and even leaving the case and going on vacation. Unlike the heaps of brahmins who offensively stereotype us on twitter and elsewhere as “reservation” candidates with a bias for our own people, there is no such brahmin in the movie, its Brahmadutt who stereotypes her and mocks her. Brahmadutt becomes the token bad guy, he mocks bullies and stereotypes the families of dalits. He also mocks Jatav ji and even physically assaults him. He even tries to scare Ayan into leaving the case.
In the case of Jatav ji not only is he voiceless but he is the first person to be casteist about the family of the girls in the presence of Ayan. He is the first person who Ayan yells at for saying “ye log aise hi hain” (these people are like this only) when talking of the dalits. He is the first person to admit to practising untouchability - on the first day, he refuses to let Ayan eat from his plate (Ayan doesn’t object) and later, he is the first to say that the pasis though dalits like him are of a lower order with whom he wouldn’t ever share a meal or even touch (strange though considering all this that he ends up hugging Gaura when they find out that Nishad is killed). Compare this to the harmless, charmless Kayastha PA to our brahmin hero who doesn’t take a single step wrong, who even praises Nishad as a topper in their school, and Jatav ji’s father for making the best dalia, a kind of porridge (indicating that he ate meals cooked by him). How very casteless of him, no? Is it a coincidence that Anubhav Sinha is also a Kayastha?
And then there are the OBCs. Anshu Nahariya and Ramlal Nahariya, stand-ins for Pappu Yadav (initially accused and then later cleared in the real-life case of the girls who were hung from a mango tree) and Akhilesh Yadav (the Chief Minister of UP at the time) respectively. It was not enough for them to share a surname, oh no. Anshu had to also be specially related and well-known to Ramlal who makes him get away with his crime specifically because of this. Not only that when Anshu is hiding from the police, his servant (?) is shown cutting meat pieces for his meal. Compare this to Ayan’s delicate nostrils which are disgusted by the smell of carcasses which have piled up cause the dalits are on strike and who’s cook/house-help tells him that dinner could be various vegetables or also, paneer. Somebody get Anshu an Akshaya Patra meal for god’s sake. Doesn’t he know that sattvic meals will make him more humane and less likely to rape?
Not to forget the egregious characterisation of the one token South Indian, a Mr. Panicker, (Panickers are considered to be shudras from Kerala and some have the OBC reservation). He supports the caste-stratification of India, mocks Ayan for not knowing good Hindi and is hand-in-glove with the CM Ramlal in exonerating Anshu and turning this into a case of honor-killing. Panicker is firm in his resolve to keep Ayan off the case, warning him that he shouldn’t do anything as he’s suspended. A renewed Ayan comes back the next day, schools Mr. Panicker on Hindi not being his language, lectures him about the price of his mineral water, and gives him hoary dialogue about how he should have said “No Sir” at least once in his life and also the aforementioned “There is always a 50-50 chance of being right or wrong and I would rather bet on the side of 50% right”(somebody with more merit, please make sense of this witticism for me cause I still don’t get it!). In contrast, a faceless brahmin Home Secretary from Delhi, Mr. Shastri who’s Ayan’s boss, urges Ayan to continue the case, saying he will look into his suspension orders.
There is one bad brahmin, don’t worry, there is. He is Mahant, a clear proxy for the current CM of Uttar Pradesh (he’s the only one with his caste changed from real life, is it because Mr. Sinha genuinely believed that Ajay Bhisht can turn from Rajput to “highest top level” Brahmin because he is now a Yogi?) He is shown as nothing more than a typical grasping politician who has meals with dalits for photo-ops to win elections and who’s greatest sin is not giving enough seats in his cabinets to the lower castes as he had promised. From a screenplay point of view, I don’t know why he is here. He has nothing to do with this case. Yet, the movie doesn’t forget to take swipes at a Dalit political leader who "builds statues for themselves while in power, forgetting their people and remembers that they’re a poor, oppressed Dalit only when they’re out of power." (OK, we get it Mr. Sinha, you think Mayawati is as bad as Yogi)
The other brahmins are all variants of Ayan Ranjan; strict, sticklers for the rules, who believe in tough love. Be it his dad who made him come back to India and join the IPS, his girlfriend with high standards for the kind of man she will stand by, or his boss, Home Secretary Shastri who sends him to the posting in Lalgaon as punishment for saying a flippant “Cool, sir”.
Just like in the story narrated by the driver to Ayan, all the lower caste people in the movie are kept in the dark by the director, but it’s done on purpose, so Ayan Ranjan aka Lord Rama and his brahmin dad, girlfriend and boss can shine more brightly.
At some point in the film, Ayan says to his girlfriend that this place seems like “The Wild, Wild, West.” For the rest of the movie, I kept dreaming and wishing that they had made a real Western movie out of this concept. Something like The Outlaw Josey Wales, or Unforgiven where brutalised people take the law into their own hands to get justice in the face of an unforgiving state’s apparatus. But that would mean giving Dalits an agency that the upper castes deny them in a manner so virulent in real life that it would be absurd to expect it of them here in reel life. As the movie ended to the strains of 'Vaishnav Jana To' which then mutated into a rap song, all I could think of was the theatre audience who laughed when Ayan committed a crime according to the SC/ST Atrocities Act by demanding to know the caste of the people around him who he works with, and then laughed again when Mr. Panicker questioned him about it while he sat in stony silence. He does say “f*ck” twice or thrice through the movie - another source of much mirth to the audience I watched it with. Ayan fascinatingly also never apologises to anyone in the entire duration of the movie, neither as the face of a failed police system or a failed social system. To the end, his smirk stays intact, he has discovered India, and done a bloody good job of it, just like Nehru who’s book he’s shown to be reading in the beginning of the movie.
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