There are moments in Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 that are so disturbing they feel like a punch to the gut.
One of these is the image of a worker, a manual scavenger emerging from a filthy, open sewer, extricating lumps of waste that are clogging the drain. His face and body covered in sludge, he goes back in seconds later to complete the job, one he is condemned to by virtue of his jaat.
In another scene an entitled bully admits to beating up three female factory workers who demanded a pay hike of three rupees. Asked why he beat them, he answers coolly: “Unhe unki aukaat dikhane ke liye”. And what is aukaat? “Aukaat wohi hai jo hum dete hain.”
There is a lot of talk of aukaat and jaat in Article 15. The film’s title refers to the provision in the Indian Constitution that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, and place of birth. Yet it’s no secret that even today across much of India caste remains the enduring marker of identity, and the singular cause of conflict and violence. After taking a sledgehammer to confront Islamophobia and intolerance in his last film Mulk, Anubhav similarly rips the door off its hinges in this brazen indictment of a centuries-old caste system and the oppression and atrocities it endorses.
Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayan Ranjan, a newly minted IPS officer posted to a small town named Lalgaon in the armpit of Uttar Pradesh. Ayan represents the educated, urban Indian – idealistic, progressive, woke, but uninformed when it comes to the ‘real issues’ of the other India; the ‘real’ India. Inspired by true events of the horrific Badaun case from 2014, in which two teenage Dalit girls were gang-raped and murdered, their bodies hung from a tree, the film places Ayan in charge of the investigation, which in turn leads to righteous anger about caste atrocities, and self reflection on who he really is and what he stands for.
The film is significant not only for what it’s saying, but also how it’s saying it. In one of the best scenes that’s played for laughs, Ayan asks his junior officers to reveal what caste they belong to, only to make the discovery that there is a hierarchy even within lower sub-castes.
The filmmaking too is solid. Anubhav and his cinematographer Ewan Mulligan create a strong sense of foreboding that hangs over Lalgaon, as if darkness and violence looms at every corner. The film is relentless in its commitment to disturb the viewer. Corpses are filmed in uncomfortable close ups, tension is built through slow building background score, and the search for a third girl who’s missing but who might still be alive is all consuming.
Anubhav assembles a crack team of terrific actors to fill out key roles. Manoj Pahwa as an upper-caste cop who warns Ayan not to upset the existing balance is in especially great form, as is Kumud Mishra also playing a cop, but who was born to a sweeper. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub has a small but memorable role as a Dalit revolutionary, and Sayani Gupta plays a Dalit girl and his love interest.
There are, of course, bits that rankle. A track involving Ayan’s continuing exchanges with his girlfriend feels tacked-on but never urgent. Then there is the issue of Ayan himself, an upper caste Brahmin, positioned as the saviour of the oppressed and downtrodden. Admirably, however, Ayushmann Khurrana plays the part so elegantly, it’s a performance to marvel at. Never showboating, Ayushmman conveys Ayan’s arc from naive to angry to empathetic with such integrity and nuance that it’s impossible not to root for him. This is easily the actor’s most mature performance and among the best by any actor this year.
Article 15 isn’t just an important film, it’s a powerful one and it’s superbly made. It comes at you all kicking and screaming, but this is a film that justifies its tone. Don’t miss it. I’m going with four out of five. It’ll rattle your core.