'Article 15': Why thrillers can’t explore social issues

'Article 15': Why thrillers can’t explore social issues

The film is wellmeaning, but it is caught between delivering poetic justice and reflecting the complexities of caste

The Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer positions the Constitution on a moral arbiter.

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 is a political thriller testifying to the raw realism that a category of Hindi cinema has adopted, shooting in less seen corners of the country, and featuring supporting characters who are plausible but often unsavoury.

Many of these films use material once in the news, and Article 15 — which calls itself fiction — is evidently based on the 2014 Badaun gang-rape case in which two Dalit girls were discovered dead, hanging from a tree.

The police tried to pass it off as suicide and later as an honour killing, and even the CBI, which was called in, resisted the gang rape hypothesis. The story made international news, once again as evidence of India being unsafe for women, with rape as a potential risk.

Eventually it tuned out that the accused were Yadavs, some of them policemen. Since the girls were Dalits, Mayawati also used the occasion to attack Akhilesh Yadav, who had made some unfortunate remarks belittling the importance of the incident.

The protagonist of Article 15 is IPS officer Ayaan Ranjan, from a privileged background and a St Stephen’s College education. He is posted to Lalgaon in UP and is immediately confronted by a case of two girls found hanging from a tree, and a third missing from the village. The missing girl has a sister, Gaura, who is into activism, and there is also a Dalit activist group led by Nishad.

Ayaan also discovers that the milieu is caste-ridden and the police force is also divided on caste lines. Brahmdutt is a Thakur as is Nihal Singh; Jatav is a Dalit while Mayank is a Brahmin like Ayaan.

Ayaan is deeply concerned and wants to solve the case but his own subordinates are working against it. Eventually it turns out that the upper-caste policemen abetted in the rape along with influential local contractor Anshu Nahariya. The girls had demanded higher wages and this was punishment for the act.

Article 15 is a ‘thriller’ and a key requirement for a thriller is that it should have a clear solution in mind, and must deliver ‘justice’ to
the spectator.

When it takes up political problems like caste antagonisms, it must also ensure that the justice it delivers reflects an ‘acceptable’ political viewpoint.

But when it works on something political that received wide coverage, it can be argued there is another obligation to fulfil, which is that it must try to embrace complexities by at least acknowledging that the story cannot have a customary ‘happy ending’ — or justice fully delivered.

But this last requirement negates the first and makes it impossible for the subject to be tackled in the format of a thriller without ‘politically correct’ distortions.

Article 15 is well-meaning but by placing the Constitution in the position of moral arbiter and lamenting the fact that the words of the Constitution have no effect at the ground level, the film is simplifying something extremely complex.

Caste in India is still not fully understood and its origins can only be speculated about.

The film follows the practice of placing the lower strata in society in the position of victims and those above them as the perpetrators, and asserts that OBCs and Dalits are together oppressed by caste Hindus such as the Thakurs and the Brahmins.

But in Badaun, the Dalits (victims) were only slightly lower placed than the OBC perpetrators since they were Mauryas and the rapist-killers were Yadavs. Moreover, there was evidence that the older of the dead girls was in a relationship with one of the perpetrators.

It is also common knowledge that Dalits are not a monolithic category, and include the powerful — politicians and civil servants — as well as the object, used for the lowest kind of labour, its members often dying of suffocation while cleaning out drains.

Individual Dalits suffer the worst kind of oppression but Dalits as a voting bloc are wooed by every political party, and these are contradictions that a thriller cannot accommodate. 

Probably the biggest error made by the film lies in its making a privileged person from Lutyens’ Delhi a concerned seeker of truth. Ayaan frequently voices his anguish about rural UP to his activist wife Aditi, and in the end he is shown wading in a marsh with fellow policemen looking for the missing girl.

There is a sense to be obtained here that he is
exceptionally noble for wading through slush, but haven’t others done this routinely? One of the conventions of the thriller is that those who cleanse a corrupted milieu must themselves be beyond culpability, but any privileged person in India is implicated in every social aspect of it — since it is social structure that places some in positions of privilege over the others. 

The thriller format works well when dealing with individual acts of wickedness investigated by detectives with no part in the evil. But when a milieu breeds wickedness-— in which virtually every citizen in a position of privilege or power is implicated — one wonders at the film’s choice of format.