Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Ayushmann Khurana, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra
Article 15 (Part III, Indian Constitution): “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”
Anubhav Sinha (the director of last year’s critically acclaimed Mulk) wastes no time in diving into the heart of Article 15. He leads the audience straight into the heartlands of a sleepy village in rural India, where a folk song sung in high-pitched gusto and piercing the pitter-patter of the rain outside, rings out, cutting through the baneful existence of the small bunch huddled together. As the group claps in unison and rhythmically moves their bodies to every intonation launched against the powerful, privileged upper castes, you are immediately sucked into their world – a shadowed presence flung far away from mainstream civilization. Elsewhere, two hapless girls in bloodied, dishevelled states are seen resisting clawing hands, their screams muffled and lost inside the walls of a bus.
Content with startling your senses, the movie then jumps to a white ambassador snaking through highways and open fields, introducing to us the man who would soon find himself in the eye of the storm. Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurana), a freshly trained IPS officer has been posted at Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh, where the caste divide is stamped across every inch of the local’s lives. Ayaan – foreign-returned, privileged, woke yet blissfully unaware of the country’s ground realities – is only slightly amused and shrugs off the casteist implications – when a constable in his team attempts to desist him from buying water from a low-caste chap on the street. He keenly observes the undercurrents of the “local harmony”, still quite oblivious of the power hierarchy therein – as Brahmanand (Manoj Pahwa), a cop at the Lalgaon police quarters emphasizes on his last name, “Singh” while introducing himself. More eyebrows are raised when yet another cop Jatav (Kumud Mishra) urgently signals to the kitchen staff to serve food on a separate plate because, “aap hamari thali se nahin kha sakte kyunki aap unchi jaat ke hain.”
The initial light-hearted banter and sheepish talk around the caste pyramid, however, gives way to horrified silences when word gets out about the gruesome sight of two Dalit girls hanging from a tree. A third girl is missing, Ayaan is soon informed by Gaura (Sayani Gupta), a relative, and one among the Dalits heading the chorus at the start of the movie. The woke, Europe-returned liberal man is shook, and so are we. Though the makers of Article 15 resolutely maintain that the movie is “inspired by real events”, we all know too well the glaring similarities of the plot with that of 2014 Badaun case where two minors were gang-raped and murdered, but their perpetrators walked out free after an investigation by the CBI revealed no evidence supporting the allegations.
Nevertheless, unlike the continued mystery of the Badaun incident, a sense of urgency pervades the air in Article 15 and the world constructed within the film, as the quest to find the culprits and the missing girl navigates the treacherous nuances of caste, religion, political influence and more, picking up a rather nationalist vibe. This is no regular investigation, for Ayaan, this is a tightrope walk between a corrupt system entrusted with upholding the values enshrined in the Constitution but wantonly reluctant to commit to the same, his own personal idealism about the land he calls his own and practical exigencies in tackling caste and social injustice where a section of the population are barely counted as human beings, let alone citizens in their own right.
Ayushmann as Ayaan deftly balances his decorous position as a government servant confined by due process along with an intensely rebellious approach to the investigation at hand, frequently snubbing the “law” of the hinterlands and the occasional foreboding warning to “stay out of this mess.” He is sharp, alert and quick enough to see through the façade of a crooked justice system, in the process earning the scorn of the ruthless, cunning upper caste perpetrators and an undeserved suspension. Khurana, in probably his first serious role in years, slips effortlessly into the shoes of a free-thinking man quickly disillusioned by the dirt and filth residing in the dingiest corners of one of the country’s building pillars.
As Ayaan, Ayushmann plays a mixed bag of emotions – from anger and derision to restraint and compassion, albeit, with a touch of social activism – which – given the film’s context is inevitable. His cluelessness regarding the intricacies and sub-sub-categories of the caste ladder compels the viewer to grapple with an untold, unseen side of India, leading them to wonder out aloud, “What the fuck is going on here?” much like Ayaan screams out in rage in one scene, exasperated with layers he never knew could be a part of the country he thought was so highly spoken of around the globe.
Among the supporting cast, Sayani Gupta as Gaura is powerfully defiant yet devastated, in a brief role. Gupta, who is fast climbing up the ranks to become a diverse actor with meaty roles across a slew of genres, does more with her watchful, indignant eyes than mouthful of dialogues could possibly do. Her scenes with Nishad (Zeeshan Ayyub), the leader of the rebel Dalit gang, are particularly heart-wrenching to watch – in that they throw us off our cushioned, privileged lives for a few moments – deeply unsettling us.
Manoj Pahwa (as upper caste Brahmanand) and Kumud Mishra as low-caste (but higher than the Pasis in the pecking order) Jatav dazzle with their nuanced, electrifying performances (I dare say they at times outshine even our main man Ayushmann). There is a fear of authority (both legally and socially determined) as the two attempt to circumvent the revolutionary IPS-in-charge’s scant regard for untimely transfers and a possible dent on his career. Likewise, there is a mounting tension among the junior officers as well – as they teeter on the edge of losing their jobs and lives even – conspiratorially shushing their fears, courtesy the powers that be. Fear drips nakedly as Ayaan darts around hunting for clues, and is gently reminded of the “santulan” (balance) inherent in the locality and how he would do well to not tamper with it. There is danger lurking as rogue agents ghoulishly follow the investigation, while attempting to mask and annihilate evidence, furnishing manipulated accounts to the press and commit a dastardly crime and more.
The unspeakable terror and the pallid tones permeating life in Lalgaon have been aptly captured by cinematographer Ewan Mulligan, rising stark and sinking deep in their blues and greys. A few shots – of the girls hanging limp from a lone mango tree, the police team ineffectively trying to lower the dead girls onto the ground without touching them, a decrepit abandoned hut with skin and blood spilling out on the ground and a traitorous swamp holding (possibly) a secret or two within – are few of the many flashes of brilliance that are bound to remain etched in your mind, long after you walk out of the theatre. It is a superbly crafted mystery whoddunit without temporary thrills.
My only grouse with the storyline is the excessiveness of cross-plotting: there are simply too many wrongs to be fixed in the space of two and a half hours. Naturally, not all of the evils get adequately addressed; these parallel and often interwoven plot points, however, serve as grim reminds of the current socio-political fabric of the nation. For instance, a local political leader uses the tragedy to mint Dalit votes, offering them pseudo olive branches in the hope of forming a “sangathan” – a united Hindu front to fight off “the enemies”. Adorning saffron clothes and a booming voice, he wears his religion on his sleeve, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a saffron-clad political authority under the present ruling party – while selling a pipe dream of equality.
Disappointing also is the manner in which Isha Talwar’s character Aditi is treated in the film. We are only told she is an impassioned writer, content in her world of blogs and articles and journalism – we know she and Ayaan do not always agree when it comes to ideology, and yet, her character is never explored, or utilized to provide credibility to the main context of the film. That in my opinion reduces her to an armchair activist.
At a time when religion has become a touch-point to determine nationalism, or lack thereof, Article 15 takes a magnifying glass and exposes the threads the caste system (under an increasingly dissatisfied and wary majority) is made of. It forces you to first look out into your own backyard and weed out the terrain so it stops choking your growth – as a human being – and as a responsible citizen.