There’s a scene in Article 15 where a man is lowered into a filthy and overflowing manhole. He is not armed with protective gear by any means. He emerges with waste all over him. The scene is just quietly placed in the story without much explanation, because honestly, the ghastliness of it all speaks volumes.
Director Anubhav Sinha’s craft lies in his subtle portrayals of the horrors that corrode the country from within. His sensitivity to such subjects shows when he depicts the evils that tear society apart. Like Mulk, Article 15 is an uncomfortable watch and makes you squirm when it shows you the caste discrimination in the country. In a Clockwork Orange-esque style, it opens the audience’s eyes to what they’ve always been sheltered from.
Yet, while Mulk which dealt with institutionalised Islamophobia in India, had more hints of subtlety and nuances, Article 15 seems angry and does not wish to leave much for the audience to interpret and to let things sink in. It’s as if Sinha is just exhausted with the unshakeable and rigid systems in the country and feels that this needs to be spelt out aggressively to people in long dialogues and monologues. At points, this tends to dilute the impact of the film.
Article 15 is based on the gruesome Badaun rapes in Uttar Pradesh, where two girls were found hanging from the tree. Here, we are taken to the grim Lalgaon in UP, where people wear their caste on their sleeves. It’s an unsettling world, where people don’t even want to share water with people from lower castes. More than a person’s name, it’s their caste which is of relevance.
Police officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) tumbles into this world. He is a man, who has “grown up in different countries”, and such matters are baffling to him. And he has to solve a case where two young girls were raped and murdered and hung from a tree. The indifference towards these girls from the other policemen is reflected in the dialogues, where they try to figure out the technicalities of how to bring them down from the tree. It’s not easy to watch that scene.
The rest of the film shows how Ranjan solves the case, while trying to understand the ingrained caste system in the village.
In a world of Bollywood cinema, where chest-thumping and nauseating patriotism is celebrated, it is safe to say Article 15 is a daring, and well-meaning courageous film. Unlike Karan Johar’s glossy Dhadak, which tiptoed around caste in its film even though the original Sairat was hard-hitting, Article 15 plunges right in, unabashedly.
Yet, it has its fair share of problems. Apart from being rather sluggishly-paced in the beginning, Anubhav Sinha tends to lose control of the film at points with his enthusiasm of conveying the painful message. Ayushmann shows hints of a saviour complex, when he vows to “un-mess” the whole caste system here and bring the girls’ families to justice at any cost. Like his girlfriend reminds him, there is no such word. And in a film that exposes such grim realities, what do these promises mean? In a world where these terrible occurrences are such a daily feature, these weighty words and promises are easier said than done. Or is it meant to ignite hope, that change is possible? You decide.
Sinha seems to want to find a middle path between cold reality and a more rosy, hopeful world, but is conflicted which ideal to cater to, at points. The film’s overtly optimistic ending seems rather out of place.
But if we are talking about rapes in the name of caste where are the women in the film? Sayani Gupta is fabulous in whatever little we see of her. Her eyes look wretched and you believe that she is actually living the role of a woman who is trying to fight for survival in a cruel world. Yet, there are only tantalising snatches of her. That’s it. Ayan’s girlfriend Isha Talwar, who is an activist, exists solely to either be upset with him or motivate him, and then again recede into the background.
With regard to acting, there are no complaints, for the most part that is. Ayushmann Khurrana shines in his understated role, though ideally one would have liked to see more of his change of thought rather than a quick jump in his character development. The film has stellar supporting performances from Manoj Pahwa and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub that carry it through.
All said and done, Article 15 might be rough around the edges and might have its fair share of flaws with regard to storytelling, but it is indeed a film to be watched. It’s a start. It cannot change society but it at least can initiate a conversation and debate that examines the horrors that lurk in this very society, invisible to our privileged eyes.