Considering the rather lukewarm responses from fringe groups to Article 15, in comparision to the frenzy that the likes of Padmavat kicked up, I have to admit that I was indeed a bit skeptical about the film. Caste is as much a reality in urban India as it is in the hinterlands and here was a mainstream Bollywood feature that was more than just acknowledging the very existence of the menace. The provocative trailer gave an impression that it was a no holds barred take on the stain of our collective conscience as a country, that the practice is. But the whole time I was watching it, I couldnt but help wonder how the film got made with the backing of a major studio like Zee Studios, in the first place. You would be absolutely in the right to call me a cynic, but given the times we live in, I wouldn’t be entirely in the wrong to feel the way I did, either. But, I guess the film deserves to be lauded just for the fact that it got made, especially in an industry as hypocritical and pretentious as Bollywood.
Article 15 opens to an extensive disclaimer that vouches that the film is entirely fictional and that it has no intentions to malign any religious sentiments with it’s content. Then, in a first for the Indian film industry, we hear Bob Dylan’s iconic “Blowing in the wind” playing in the background. That was only the first in a long line of firsts for mainstream Hindi Cinema, we soon realise. We are presented with Ayushman Khurrana’s suave sophisticated cop who’s still wet behind his ears and is seen riding in a cop car with a copy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India by his side, on his way to take charge as ACP in a town that’s somewhere between Lucknow and Ayodhya, as we learn from the driver. I’m absolutely clueless about the relevance of the book here, unless it was just a direct to reference to the title. The film flags it’s intentions early on when the young cop asks his driver to stop for a drink of water and is told that they were passing through a locality where the residents belonged to a lower caste and that even their shadows were outcast for the upper castes which obviously made up the passengers.Yes, these are cops, government employees, sworn in by the only written word that matters, the Constitution. The top cop, of course would have none of it and he’s here to break the rules. When he’s not seen in his uniform, he is seen sporting a suit most of the time which could very well be an ode to the man who is the architect of our Constitution, Dr.B.R. Ambedkar whose name is taken as a slogan on many occassions in the film. This newbie cop from Delhi is supposed to be the personification of that class of our society who are impervious and oblivious to the malices of the caste system. In fact he’s so clueless that he actually asks his subordinates to explain to him the caste heirarchy of the team he’s leading, including his own. That’s a hard sell in a realistic film with an IPS officer as the central character. The film clearly draws inspiriation from the Badaun rape case and works like a police procedural and a thriller too with the search for a missing girl added to the plot. In his journey into the heartlands of Northern India, the cop comes across a range of characters from corrupt cops to politicians to local businessmen with vested interests to the subjugated to the rebels, which brings us to another character, that of a Dalit leader. played passionately by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub. He’s the hero who doesn’t get to be the hero. The saviour has to be one from the priviliged class, the film underscores and that’s almost the only instance where it defeats itself. The mood of the film comes to the fore the most in a most disturbing scene where a manual scavenger is seen to be emerging from a manhole, it’s an image that stays with you for long because if you care to think and pause for a moment, you know that it’s most probably happening that very moment in some part of our country for real.
The makers have left no stone unturned in their efforts to portray the horrors of the caste system on screen for a wider audience. The detailing is impeccable. The CBI officer from South India played by Nasser is named Panicker, for one. The script is basically a tour de force for Gaurav Solanki’s skills as a writer I feel, considering his history as a writer with a conscience and unrelenting views. There’s more than one dig at the ruling government, but then the whole film is supposed to be one too. Anubhav Sinha who debuted almsot two decades back with the extended music video that Tum Bin was, has come a long way indeed and his recent Mulk dealt with a touchy topic too. Despite all the gritty realities that the film doesnt shy away from throwing the audience’s way, one cant but help feel that the ending was almost fairytale. The greatest criticsm that could come the film’s way, rightly too is the fact that it’s the Brahmin hero who appears as the saviour here. Ayushman Khuranna’s Ayan Ranjan could very well be Lord Ram even, given his perfect gentlemanly demeanour and conduct. Isha Talwar plays his love interest and serves the purpose of a moral compass to on more than one occassion, in fact he is almost entirely dependent on her when it comes to his social awareness. Article 15 is far from perfect but it is indeed the bare it all for Bollywood filmmakers who have been sweeping caste under the carpet, on screen for decades. It is pasteruization, it’s the Small Pox vaccine, it’s the Moon landing, as far as Bollywood is concerned.