The audience response to Article 15 seems to have come as a surprise for you.
Even though I was hoping that the film would be watched by many, I knew that it’s not very uplifting and raises questions. No one likes questions unless it’s Kaun Banega Crorepati. That’s why I had my apprehensions.
Did having a Brahmin protagonist (Ayushmann Khurrana), who is clueless about the realities at the grassroots level, in some way soften the blow of these questions?
For me, it’s the story of the privileged, what they have done and what they need to do. I’m trying to tell a story where the camera is on the shoulders of a member of the privileged class. If he (the protagonist) is from the privileged class, then why not make him someone from the top-rung of the society — be it his social class or position in the organisation. When I first broached this idea, many said that caste-based discrimination was a thing of the past. Now, many people are writing to me on social media about the extent of this problem.
Before you worked on the script, what kind of preparation did you do?
My co-writer (Gaurav Solanki) had experienced life in rural areas. We stationed ourselves in Delhi for some days and met people who are working on this subject and watched documentaries related to it. We read books like Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva by Anand Teltumbde and Jhoothan by Omprakash Valmiki too.
Both, in case of Mulk (2018) and Article 15, the audience is not looking at a teacher talking to them but watching a story unfold. The information and discourse are delivered on the side which will weigh heavier after they have watched the movie.
Why did you choose to revisit the alleged murder and rape of two girls in Badaun?
I was affected by the image of their bodies hanging from a tree. In Article 15, I wanted this image to be stark and disturbing. We often get used to such incidents. When the first case of lynching was reported, we were disturbed by it. Today, it is just another news. This internalisation of tragedy is dangerous.
The scene where the protagonist tells a young girl upfront about her brother being a rapist was disturbing.
Cinematographer Ewan Mulligan was dead against it. He said we couldn’t do it to the girl. The day we were shooting this scene, I had to do a headcount to see how many people were in favour of it. I agree, it’s a cruel scene. The first line that Ayushmann’s character says to the girl is: “Beta, rape samajhti ho? (Do you understand what is rape?)”. He had to do it as there was no choice. The girl would get to know about it eventually. So, he sat her down and told her.
You have used a real-life manual scavenger in Article 15. How did you shoot that scene?
We had built the set of a police station at an abandoned government building in Lucknow’s Malihabad. We shot there for 10 days. Behind this building, we created this underground tank, filled with muck, that you see on screen. We asked Shadab, a real-life manual scavenger, to train the actors. He volunteered to do the scene himself with another local who is holding the rope as he goes inside the tank.
You wrote an open letter when controversy cropped up around Mulk. You did the same again now.
There are 300 trolls saying 400 different things. The best way to tackle this is to talk. That’s why I wrote an open letter to Karni Sena (saying that the movie doesn’t disrespect the Brahmin community).
You have taken digs at different political parties.
I’m not taking digs at the parties. I’ve given up on them. I’m taking digs at the voters. One of the characters says: “Mujhe nahi pata kisko vote dun. Phool ya hathi ko. Toh meine cycle ko diya”. I’m trying to convey that this is how they cast their vote.
As a filmmaker, you will move to another project. So, what’s your social responsibility?
My responsibility is to raise questions and try to answer them in my own way. People will, hopefully, carry those questions forward and respond to them in their own way.
You were considering legal action against the Roorkee district magistrate for stopping Article 15’s release.
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has certified the movie. There is no way it can be stopped from releasing in theatres. That’s a Supreme Court ruling. The fact the movie’s release has been stopped means that the local administration is not doing its job. I must question it.
You are shooting your next with Tapsee Pannu soon. How do you manage to work at this pace?
Together with my team, I have found this rhythm where I can finish shooting a film in 30-45 days. Article 15’s shoot took about 30 days. I spend a lot of time prepping for a film and I won’t be surprised if we finish shooting of our next in 25 days.