Article 15 movie cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Isha Talwar, Sayani Gupta, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Nassar
Article 15 movie director: Anubhav Sinha
Article 15 movie rating: Three stars
‘Aukaat wahi hai jo hum dete hain’. This line, spoken by a brutish male character who exemplifies centuries-old class and caste and gender privilege, gets us to confront the deepest faultlines of modern India. On this side are the upper-castes and the untrammelled power that comes with that pole position; on the other, are the lowest of the low, the invisible, the Dalits; and in between is the heartbreaking divide which shapes our destiny in this country even today.
Anubhav Sinha follows up 2018’s Mulk, which shone a searing light on the religious strife tearing the country apart, with Article 15. In Mulk the upholding of the Constitution by a judge in a court room comes at a climactic moment; here, it becomes the film.
The arrival of IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Khurrana) to take up his new posting in a UP village creates ripples. The new man is an outsider who has no idea of the importance of the ‘santulan’ (‘balance’) that his subordinate Brahmdutt (Pahwa) lives by, and enforces with practiced entitlement.
The upright cop’s ‘ignorance’ of the ways of the world, is used as a classic device through which many of the ‘customs’ can be ‘explained’. Ranjan is made to learn that Brahmins like Brahmdutt are on the top of the food chain, feeding upon those who belong to the ‘pichadi jaati’, whether they are his own colleagues like Jatav (Mishra), or the three missing young girls who dare to stand up for their rights. ‘Inn logon mein toh aisa hota hi rahta hai’, says a policeman dismissively, no point in getting all stirred up. Ranjan, of course, is primed to do exactly that.
Some of the conflicts, especially between the policeman whose coming shakes up entrenched local power-centres, comprising political and religious figures and complicit cops, remind you of Prakash Jha’s films, especially Gangajal and Aarakshan, and, in a flash or two, of E Niwas’s Shool.
The difference is in the way the ‘Article 15’ ratchets up the complicity and complacence. And more crucially, in the way it fashions its cop. Ranjan is less vigilante hero, more a human being trying to grapple with the monstrosity unleashed on powerless people around him, his moustache coming off more a personal choice than a marker of male pride. You see Khurrana’s initial tentativeness settling into resolve; it isn’t a showy performance, and it gets better as he goes along, though I wish he had come off more steely.
Like Mulk, Article 15 lifts its chief plot points, and a pivotal character, from real life. The deaths of two girls in Badaayun (that image of the two lifeless salwar-kammez-clad bodies hanging from the tree is burnt on your eyeballs) ; the introduction of a saffron-clad ‘Mahantji’ who canvasses for votes from across the caste spectrum, and ‘wins with a thumping majority’; the flogging of Dalit youths in Una (which the film doesn’t make as much of as it could have; we see a glimpse, and then it’s gone). These were, and continue to be, headlines.
There’s a lot that’s well done in Article 15, even though some of it is too on the nose, like a primer-explainer of ‘rural caste oppression and urban ignorance’. And at places, it feels scattered because there’s too much going on. I found a few strands unconvincing: Sayani Gupta’s Gaura, who plays the older sister of one of the missing girls, has a vivid presence, but is wrong for the part; Zeeshan Ayyub’s rebel Dalit leader’s comings-and-goings take away from the proceedings. The romantic thread between the cop and his activist lady-love (Talwar) is a filler, and the thriller-like chase to-find–the-missing-girl tone feels gratuitous.
The performances to watch out from come from Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa, both of whom played significant roles in Mulk: it looks as if Sinha is building a repertory of good actors who add heft to whichever films they are in. And Nassar, as the officer who knows how not to rock the boat, is excellent.
Sinha set the bar high with Mulk, which brought back the words Hindu and Muslim, and everything they stand for, back into mainstream cinema. Article 15, which comes less than a year later, is not as impactful as Mulk, but it is as important a film. Corrosive religious fundamentalism divides us; caste keeps us separated in perpetuity.
To make films which topline these subjects is a way of getting us to talk, and, in an ideal world, start some kind of a push-back against injustice and oppression, things we have dangerously begun taking for granted. Article 15 may have an unsatisfactory element or two, but as a film, it rushes in to reclaim the grounds we have ceded. It is what is needed– a clarion call, a bugle, a calling-out– all rolled in one.
Make it worth your time, because if we don’t watch it, who will?