Article 15: Courageous cinematic critique of New India

The film celebrates the real spirit of Indian nationalism that essentially aspires for a social transformation of our grim realities by using the Constitutional principles of equality and provisions like Article 15 as a potent tool.

If you want to be moved and made uncomfortable by the harsh reality of oppressive social structures in Indian society then Article 15, is a movie you cannot afford to miss.

The just presented Union Budget of New India laid out the road map for our national goal to become a $ 5 trillion economy, but these big money dreams cannot hide the truth of a Bharat where caste-based forced labour manifests as manual scavenging and the sacred dictum of purity and pollution take the form of brutal public flogging of Dalits.

In this context, Article 15 takes the decisive leap of courage to state the reality of India’s social structures, and their institutional/political permeation in the form of police brutality and complicity in oppression.

In an era of majoritarian chest-thumping and tailor-made propaganda films such as PM Narendra Modi, Thackeray et al made to promote an ideology,Article 15 comes across as a strong attempt to provoke serious soul-searching about the caste question in the Indian republic, whilst a fighting the mindless plea to call it a violation of constitutional values and inciting casteist violence. It juxtaposes the pantheon of false hypothesis that construct the caste system, such as the British colonial construct, and provide uncritical defence of social traditions like untouchability and the prohibition of inter-caste marriages among others.

The internal and external cleavages within and amongst castes is also shown with brutal and brilliant honesty. The spectacular similarity with the contemporary political scenario and its critique is a bold divergence from the deferential, hero-worship culture in Bollywood, which aims to align itself with comfortable, money-grossing, hardly-challenged plot lines. This is especially true in the portrayal of Nishad as a character representing the real-life, firebrand Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad, who was incarcerated under the National Security Act in the recent past. Its critique of electorally-motivated attempts of so-called caste unity by conservative, right-wing politicians like Mahantji is remarkable.

In the 'policewala' genre dominated by the likes of Ajay Devgn and Ranveer Singh, Article 15’s Ayushman Khurrana, breaks away. He does not play the eternally confident, jumping-over-the-thellas-in-mandi, riding-on-top cars, macho-dialogue-spouting policeman He plays a cop as human as they come: Sensitive, vulnerable and confused.

The film itself takes us inside the realities of people from the working and the labour classes (usually belonging to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes) and forces us to see, unflinchingly, how oppression takes a human toll. From education to jobs, to housing, or in the context of the freedom to exercise religious beliefs and live without the threat of hate crimes and targeted violence, Article 15 brings a ringside view of what it means to be discriminated against by a system and its insidious arms.

Sensitization comes in stages and the film only deserves to be lauded for getting the conversation started. For setting the wheels in motion. Initially, to be able to leave an impact on the target audience – here, upper caste viewers – the setting has to be the one they are easily able to relate to and only then can the layers of oppression be peeled one by one.

Subject to the glaring realities of people who make our lives easier for two hours fifteen minutes, you start seeing the working and labour class as equal humans and ask yourself: "Can all this be a coincidence?" It’s when you see a pattern of castes and socio-financial conditions of people bearing them that you understand that there is a history to it, a damaging one, and scant has been done about it. The marginalised section has been constantly denied any opportunity to advance, be at par with the privileged class and break away from menial occupations that they are born into.

Director Anubhav Sinha and his lead actor Khurrana, in combination with a stellar support cast made up of Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Ronjini Chakraborty, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra and Nassar, come together deliver a movie that tries its utter best to show us the heinousness of a crime widespread and far-reaching and yet invisible.

Its portrayal of gruesome sexual violence as an extreme form of upper-caste hegemony and domination is incredibly impactful. The exposition of the series of events in the Badaun gangrape case powerfully question the ineffectual law and order mechanism and weak public conscience.

While one (like ACP Ayan Ranjan) is completely disgusted at the situation portrayed in the backward regions like Lalgaon, the covert complicity of urbane classes in similar acts of private discrimination and oppression – like separate utensils or lifts or forced domestic labour – is also portrayed. The comfort of caste privilege and the consequent caste-blindness is realised when the film outs the reality of opposition to social justice measures like reservation and discrimination against lower caste police personnel by upper castes in its trademark unabashed manner. Certain dialogues like, "Power ki alag hi jaat hoti hai" (Power has a caste of its own) ring in your ears.

Yet, the film is optimistic in its own ways. Though the characters are suffering and have their own fears and insecurities, they are not relegated to the category of ‘victims’. They have already waged a war against the system. The film is rife with incongruous instances that show the fundamental tyranny of Indian State; there are posters of a missing girl being pasted next to a wall painting which calls for empowerment of young girls through education, a 'bidaai' song plays while the father of deceased girls is performing their last rites.

The film touches upon all the gruesome facets of the lives of those the privileged classes can unsee– be it manual scavenging, the relegation of ‘dirty’ animal skinning work, brutal beatings for the ‘crime’ of temple entry, ill-equipped huts or the mere sight of Pooja (who goes missing in the film) lying unconscious in the jungle for days altogether. Even if from within a ring of privilege, it forces you to think: "Nobody deserves this!"

Maybe, for all the criticism the film has garnered, this is what it sets out to do. You ultimately realise there is a world of difference between their everyday struggles and yours. The question posed by Jatav, a minor but key character, resonates for all of us to acknowledge: "Aakhir kab tak jhaadu maarenge?" (Till when do you expect us to engage in filthy and menial jobs?).

Ultimately, the film celebrates the real spirit of Indian nationalism that essentially aspires for a social transformation of our grim realities by using the Constitutional principles of equality and provisions like Article 15 as a potent tool.

(Prannv Dhawan leads the Law and Society Committee at NLSIU Bengaluru. Bhavya Arora is a student of Hansraj College, Delhi University, and edits the college’s periodic publications)

The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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