Let's Talk About Caste: Why Ayushmann Khurrana's ‘Article 15’ is a film every politically-minded Indian must see

Kudos to Anubhav Sinha and the film's crew for pulling off a phenomenal job at dealing with duch a dark subject, in such a riveting way.

 |  6-minute read |   03-07-2019
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I watched Article 15 with a 20-year-old Delhi University student. She had tears in her eyes, cried a bit and was deeply disturbed by the film. Why I asked, didn’t the film Mulk made by the same director equally move her, the answer I got was revealing — I know about the Hindu-Muslim problem and in Mulk, a Muslim family faces terrible profiling after one member joins a terror outfit.

But this, she said, was just so sad.

She said, ‘I know about caste — but I never really thought about how terrible it can be’.

The tears just welled up during a scene of manual scavenging as a man goes head down into black sludge. The tears welled up too at the sad fate of young Dalit girls, raped and strung up on a branch of a tree.

No, I did not shed tears because I have greater experience of life in the Hindi heartland.

But I marveled at a film that tackled the truth of Indian society — and did so for a mainstream audience. I noted how accurately the writer/director captured the reality of life and caste divisions in Uttar Pradesh.

article690_070219090530.jpgOn The Ball: Ayushmann Khurrana, with his portrayal of IPS officer Ayan Rajan, won the audience. (Source: India Today)

Article 15 is an acutely political film that draws from real life — and any one with a political bone must see it. There are many vignettes and events that could be inspired from actual events of the past few years. First, the rape and hanging of the girls itself was a news item some years ago with a photograph carried by several national dailies. The scene when it is shown in the mist is a large amplification of news we have become immune to. It troubles us. It confronts us — and it forces us to keep looking.

There is a character who plays a small but significant part that, to me, appears inspired by the life of Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, the Bhim Army chief, who was jailed for long periods under draconian national security acts. The actor manages to look like a bit like the real chief of the Bhim Army. The end he meets in the film is ghastly but watch it to see.

There is a high caste holy man/politician heading an ashram — he is trying to forge a political pact with the Dalits and makes a pretence of eating with them. Watch the film to find out if he really does. There are saffron flags and blue flags fluttering in the backdrop of the socio-political drama that unfolds here.

But the most outstanding part of the film is the equation in the police station where a liberal, city-educated Brahmin police officer is posted and gets a wake-up call from Bharat as opposed to India. The Pasi Dalit villages are where he is told people like him do not stop to get water or food — but he does. The Dalits, he is told, are like that only. Girls will disappear and they will never return.

girls690_070219090548.jpgThe Violence, the Veil: Rural India has been exposed in Article 15. (Source: Reuters)

There’s no reason to investigate, the officer is told, and there’s a constant effort to close the file. Once the girls are found strung up on a tree, the entire attempt is to pass it off as an honour killing done by the fathers themselves and his deputy goes to great length to omit mention of rape.

The officer’s struggle to get his motley caste crew of cops to actually work on the case is at the heart of the film. It produces very realistic characters and some stand-out dialogues. There’s a scene where the officer, frustrated at being blocked, asks each member his caste. Dark humour unfolds. The Jatav Dalit says he is way above the Pasi Dalits in the hierarchy. The Jat says he is OBC in Uttar Pradesh but “normal” in Haryana. And yes, the Savarnas have the most complex and acute understanding of the social order that they keep suggesting must not be broken. It includes their own place in the hierarchy along with that of the local contractor and owner of a leather tannery.

Uttar Pradesh is dotted with small-scale industries and the film gets that landscape bang on. In Article 15, we have a leather tannery. The manner in which industry can seek to exploit people is the backdrop to what unfolds, along with caste attitudes. Inhuman acts take place because those who need labour also feel it is important to show people their place. The issue of wages therefore comes in and the girls meet a particular fate because they asked for a Rs 3 increase.

The film reinforces the truth that rape is not about desire but about power and a tool of subjugating those who dare question prevailing hierarchies.  

'Vande Mataram' is used quite movingly in the film and the interval comes up when the officer played by Ayushmann Khurrana, takes a print-out of Article 15 from the Indian Constitution and pins it up on the notice board of the station. Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, or of any of them.

That’s when we head for the popcorn — hopefully, with our conscience stirred.

15690_070219090619.jpg Article 15: Dim. Yet, sharp. (Source: India Today)

When I saw the film in an afternoon show at a multiplex, it was house-full and there was a responsive audience in South Delhi. There are reports of protests against the film in parts of Uttar Pradesh and news reports inform us that “religious groups” apparently stopped a screening in Kanpur. They reportedly complained it disturbs their sentiments.

No matter — it’s a small blip.

What is important is that a film has been made about caste hierarchies in India and is being seen by mainstream audiences — such as the student that watched it with me and learnt something about her country. Oh yes, and in the end, there is a desi rap song.

Quite cool.  

Also Read: Article 15 Movie Review: Ayushmann Khurrana and Anubhav Sinha hit hard with this gritty, demanding film!

Writer

Saba Naqvi Saba Naqvi @_sabanaqvi

Eminent political journalist and writer. Author, most recently of Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee To Modi

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