Hindi Reviews

Article 15 Review: A Smug But Well Told Procedural

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Director: Anubhav Sinha

Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Nasser, Kumud Mishra

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 begins with the greatest of ironies, establishing that it is near impossible to accomplish or make something of note happen in this country – especially works of art – without blessings from the higher powers or without an umbrella of privilege, to be more precise. Works of art too have administrative efforts behind them that need papers to be passed, documents to be signed, people to be acknowledged and thanked. The opening credits of Article 15 – a film that is a little too self-congratulatory for its own good but well told as a procedural – thanks, among others, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Article 15 has a figure modelled on him. We are introduced to a Mahantji who is somewhat of a cross between godman and politician. He is not that integral to the plot of the film but the Uttar Pradesh in the film is near identical to the Uttar Pradesh of today where minorities are under threat and hate is at an all-time high. Mahantji as part of his election campaign conducts a gimmick of unity with the Dalits. He eats with them, but his plates come from his own home. He doesn’t say casteism must be annihilated in his speeches. He says it doesn’t matter who you are, let’s all try to be together.

Article 15 opens with a rain-soaked village and its population – mostly Dalits – huddled together. Gaura (Sayani Gupta) is singing a folk song as an Ambedkar statue, only one unprotected from the rain, watches from a distance. We soon move to the film’s upper caste hero – Ayushmann Khurrana as IPS officer Ayan Ranjan – in a car listening to Bob Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind. His driver tells him a parable from the Ramayana, where a village turned to darkness so that Ram’s palace can shine brighter. Assuming you’ve been watching the news in the last five years, the story strikes the landing. The song shifts. The mood shifts. A new country emerges. It is probably Sinha’s way of announcing how many Indias exist in a single instance, but it also gives an idea of how removed from reality and protected by layers of privilege Ayan himself is.

In the beginning, there are a lot of name drops in Article 15. There is Ambedkar and Bob Dylan. We see Ayan reading Discovery of India. His partner Aditi (Isha Talwar) is his sounding board and we learn that she works on “gender studies”. People in the film have all the right pedigree to be talking the things they talk about until they don’t. At one point, Ayan tells Aditi that he used to proudly talk about India to his friends in Europe. The number of things that he unlearns and learns over the course of this film is staggering even for a cocooned individual. He expresses shock over practices and inequities that have existed for centuries. In some ways, the film is Ayan’s own discovery of India.

But there is merit in this approach; in today’s increased threat of majoritarianism it probably serves as a reminder to what the country is turning into and what its real ideals are. It probably helps when a story like this one and words said here that despite sounding like visualized versions of liberal elite editorials, are relayed into mainstream consciousness through popular cinema. The Hindi film industry is usually not an ally, its biggest players are usually pro establishment and pro status quo, so this feels like that rare film that is willing to wade into murky waters. Sinha and Gaurav Solanki’s script is loosely based on the 2014 Badaun gang rape. Ayan is newly posted to Lalgaon where two Dalit girls, 15 years old, are raped and their bodies are hung from a tree. A third one – Gaura’s sister – goes missing. From here, the film is adroit in switching between polemic and procedural. The former is when Ayan examines the caste hierarchy and equations in the village. This is where a bit of the smugness creeps in; the film is self-aware and seems to wait for the sound of applause before every cut. There is a moderately painful scene where Ayan asks after everyone’s caste in his police station. It goes for humour, a particularly sardonic one that also feels disingenuous and perverse. It draws laughter but that laughter is couched in a defeatist attitude. The laughter can be verbalized as “this is so funny it’s true.” The film’s gaze is situated upon a pedestal. To Article 15‘s credit, it is categorical in its indictment. It indicts the self – the upper caste allies who don’t do enough, it indicts the police force (there is even a staged encounter), and it indicts the government and the excuse of a democracy it functions on.

The procedural part is the superbly directed atmospheric film. Daylight seldom strikes. It’s always dawn in Lalgaon, or twilight, information is clouded in mist and the air is too foggy with every ill in society. Even the police station’s sewage system is broken and Ayan works while standing on piles of filth and garbage. Sinha doesn’t shy away from showing who is called upon to fix it. Kumud Mishra serves up the performance of the film, playing a man who is caught in a crossfire, punished not only for his birth but also his preferment. Article 15‘s best moment, strangely, occurs during an offhand romantic scene. Ayan tells Aditi that he sees a glint in Gaura’s eyes when she talks of her lover Nishad, a Dalit activist. He wonders why he doesn’t see that in Aditi’s eyes when she talks of him. It’s apparent Ayan has never wondered about these things before. He’s never had to. This sequence switches between Aditi-Ayan and Gaura-Nishad having some stolen moments where Nishad is baring his heart to her, disclosing his vulnerability. Ayan probably could never appreciate such a moment for he doesn’t realize that for some, even love is privilege. Glint is not for the faint hearted.

*****

The Article 15 review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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