A Nervy Thriller, A Grim Picture of Violence Backed by Law
The various elements of Article 15's craft reinforce each other powerfully
Anubhav Sinha has picked three topical stories, two of the torture of Dalits, and one of the rise of a political leader under false pretences, weaving them in with slight improvisations to create a convincing script for this polished film set in the fictitious town of Lalbagh in Uttar Pradesh.
Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. The film elaborately describes what Article 15 contains and how it is grossly violated with impunity so far as Dalits are concerned.
The violation is very diabolically covered so as to set the guilty free, where gang rapes of minor Dalit girls are disguised as “honour killing” and where the lynching of Dalits is “justified” with the excuse that they wanted to have food inside a temple where their entry is forbidden.
The rise of the saffron-clad, shaven-headed political leader is so transparent that one need not indulge in a guessing game to identify him.
The story zeroes in on the gang rape of three Dalit girls - while two are killed and hung from a tree to show that they either killed themselves or were killed by their fathers, the third escapes and is missing.
Ayush Ranjan, the IPS officer is determined to find out the truth behind the so-called honour killings, and his journey towards trying to find out the third girl who fled forms the fulcrum of the film and story.
The casteist stigma spills over onto the police staff as well - they come from different Hindu castes, and those who are Dalits among them accept the ignominy and insult heaped on them as a given. They are shown accepting that they deserve such treatment because they are Dalits.
This kind of film is based on targeting the mass audience to educate them on Article 15 and how it is being ruthlessly and brutally violated, not only by one small group of people pitted against another big and powerful group, but also by the very people bound to uphold the Constitution.
An idol of Babasaheb Ambedkar who framed the constitution and its entire contents is sometimes presented within the frame. But the idol is quite small and one wonders whether this is a pointer to the Dalit leader’s fading importance in the present political ambience, or to the poverty of most Dalits, or whether the original statue itself is small and imperfect.
As cinema Article 15 scores quite high in almost every department. Ayushman Khurrana who plays Ayush Ranjan, the honest and angry IPS officer posted in Lalgarh, changes his entire screen persona to fit into the role of an upright police officer in what is a new role for him.
Magically he moulds his body language, his dialogue delivery, his almost deadpan expressions and you cannot find any resemblance with any other of his films.
Manoj Pehwa, who is an extremely underutilised actor, invests his police inspector character with multiple shades, distanced from the character he played in Sinha’s earlier film Mulk.
Kumud Mishra as a policeman who belongs to one of the many-hued Dalit castes is also brilliant in his rather subdued role. Nasser as the diabolic head of the CBI who arrives to take Ayush Ranjan off the case and accuse him of prejudice is also very restrained.
Ayush Ranjan’s ignorance about his own caste is a bit of an exaggeration because even if he has lived and travelled abroad for some time, every Indian gets to learn of his caste when he assumes adulthood.
But his confusion and shock over discovering the role caste plays in the financial, social and political lives of people, depending on the caste they are assigned at birth, is both logical and convincing.
A question that arises is around the focus on the rural heartlands of the country, as if this is a rural problem and nothing like this exists in urban India. This schism is politically created to sustain the illusion that the torture and stigmatisation of Dalits does not happen in the cities, possibly to keep our minds obsessed with stability and safety away from the issue.
But this is not true. A history professor at Jadavpur University in a leading article mentions how her colleagues were surprised to discover that though she was a Dalit, she had fair skin! She adds that when her father insisted that as she was a brilliant student, and would not need admission under any “reserved” category, the administration forced him to “take advantage” of the “opportunity.”
Someone told her “But you do not look like a Santhal,” to which her response was “What, in your opinion, should a Santhal look like?” and there was no answer.
The reliance the director places on methodical procedures such as legwork, lab work, forensics, research, surveillance and interrogation adds to the suspense every moving minute.
Sinha also rightly emphasises the milieu that the characters inhabit, be it the staff at the police station who happen to be a mix of different kinds of characters, or among the rebelling Dalits who are fighting for their rights underground, or the people at the periphery such as Ayush’s fiancée, an activist and social worker based in Delhi, or of course, the Dalits forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
Article 15 is at once a political thriller and a nail-biting, police procedural thriller, where the men behind the uniform are all as ordinary as the people they hold power over.
Bhramadatt (Manoj Pehwa) for instance, feeds stray dogs with chewing gum all the time and feels bad if a dog takes ill, but doesn’t blink while trying to persuade his boss to close a case that might reveal his darker, inhuman side.
In other words, this upper-caste policeman is more concerned with stray dogs than with human beings of an other community.
There are some beautiful moments in the film. The Dalit girl who cooks for Ayush, who does not reveal any consciousness about her caste identity, behaves normally with Ayush and even scolds him for being such a poor eater.
The most shocking scene is that of a man getting into a stinking manhole filled with marsh and mush, coming out, and then going down again. He is a manual scavenger commanded in the search for that missing third girl, but he has no safety gear such as goggles or mask or helmet or a body shield. Why not?
The small cameo character of the young man who was once Ayush’s friend and has now gone astray is an imaginable and very humane touch…
The cinematography by Evan Mulligan is so precise that it appears the film might have suffered minus this quality of cinematography. Blues and greys dominate the canvas while the early morning fog, slats of sunlight falling through the windows, the misty mornings, the police van rushing through the winding roads captured from top-angle shots, all enrich the film with tremendous impact.
The same goes for the editing, and hats off for the wonderful dialogue. The sound design wanders among natural ambient sounds and ominous sounds, defining the polarities in the script and the narration.
The main theme music with its rhythmic beat and its monotony sustains the suspense and the thrill of the narrative as it unfolds, layer by layer, revealing one shock after another. The notes of Vande Mataram playing against the notice on Article 15 that Ayush pastes on the station wall is a jarring piece of melodrama. The Bob Dylan song establishes Ayush’s fondness for music from another land, and at the same time is a telling comment on the journey he has made thus far.
We are plunged into one new situation after another, with the action already in progress, without resorting to the huge close-ups common in thrillers but emphasising on mid-shots or very long shots often held in silhouettes in and around the marshy water body that holds the key, to the finding of the third missing girl.
The debate that arises while reviewing a truly serious film like Article 15 lies in whether the way the film has been made, including the technical aspects like acting, music, editing and so on, dominates decisive comments over the message or the shocking factual incidents it quite transparently reflects in guise as fiction.
This is one film in which the director does not allow the subject to be disguised with some mysterious or fictional title, but calls it by its name. This, perhaps, is a ‘first’ in Indian cinema.
Article 15 is a grim picture of the institutionalisation and legitimation of violence by the police force backed by law, of Dalit communities for no other reason than that they are Dalits, per se.
Made on a relatively limited budget of Rs.28 crores, Article 15 netted only 5 crores on the day of its release.
Contrast this with the first-day box office pickings of Kabir Singh and its toxic masculinity, which collected Rs.20 crores and is fast rushing towards the 200-crore bracket!