While watching Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, at one point, I was reminded of a powerful line from this year’s Sonchiriya, “Woman is another caste altogether. Different from all. Beneath all,” For a film that stealthily analyzes rural India’s caste fabric through a finite prism of women’s role in the system, the recall asserts the state of the heartlands, and India at large. In a plot that is centred on a twin Dalit murder and one missing case in rural Uttar Pradesh, Article 15 is about the Indian society’s intrinsically trickled-in caste dynamics, ways of power politics as well as the central protagonist’s coming-of-age.
It is easier to look at Sinha’s canvas through the leading man Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) and his wife Aditi’s (Isha Talwar) eyes. The duo represents the film’s primary target group – the urban diaspora – who might have distorted ideas about the existence of casteism in areas outside their radius. Come to think of it, someone with a name as urban-sounding as Ayan is out of place in a village where the likes of Bhrahmadutt, Gaura, Awdhesh, Malti and the likes thrive. Even his friend from the college who happens to be a resident of the village is named Satyendra. The closest that the film gets to be a little offbeat with its character names is with that of the Dalit revolutionary, Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) – whose could possibly be a throwback to Govind Nihalani’s Amrit from Party if we ignore the family privilege angle.
Names aside, Sinha’s film packs a lot on its platter. For a writer who seldom practices ways of subtle storytelling, his screenplay is crowd-pleasing by design and is, hence, exceedingly tell-tale. Sinha knows that this is a story that ought to reach to a larger segment of cine-goers and he doesn’t mince words, literally. Every detail, every line that he wants us to know has been uttered and established in a direct and crystal clear fashion. At times, it comes across as if he is being way too unadventurous with the explosive material he has in place but with the impact that Article 15 generates, there’s little room for grievances.
An investigative thriller cum social drama, Anubhav Sinha’s plot is gripping but also somewhat predictable. The latter aspect is more because the storyline is well-assessed and laced with various instances that we might have passively read about and probably sympathized, only to be forgotten once the news got stale. However, it is the way that he designs his characters and also in the way they exist equivocally in an unstable, manipulated society. Armed only with knowledge from the books on India’s caste syntax, Ayan, in one scene enquires about his subordinates’ castes. Soon he realizes how they’ve assigned hierarchy to themselves basis the very same filter. Ayan himself invites a certain default superiority owing to his Brahmin surname, something that he never knew he could command in the first place. On another interesting note, the Dalit cop looks down upon another member from a different scheduled tribe while enjoying the very same privileges as per the Constitution of India. In addition, there are numerous scenes that are staged like a play where several of its components are explained in acute terms, with the key player’s contempt forming the reaction to each.
Interestingly enough, Article 15 does not have a profound villain. Rather it features a bunch of them exuding various shades of grey. Be it the Mahantji who organizes meetings to unite Hindus of all castes or the South Indian CBI officer with a peculiar fascination for Hindi. In one scene, the latter is wittily mirrored by a corrupt doctor who attempts to show off his proficiency in English. The most nauseating of all is Ayan’s colleague Brahmadutt (played to perfection by Manoj Pahwa) who is easily the film’s most intriguing character. Shown to be kind towards dogs, the man’s casteist ways are nothing but homegrown. For a fact, we do not know what his mindscape is like. Despite his obvious evilness, we sense how he is also strangely protective about his difficult superintendent’s well-being. He would not attempt to confront him in any manner even if he had the power to, it can be assumed. Instead, he chooses to harm those with the ability to expose him. Brahmadutt is an officer who is forever in a rush to close the case and move forward. The way he challenges Jatav (Kumud Mishra in his absolute elements) in his final is scene proves why Pahwa is amongst the best we have.
Anubhav Sinha’s also tests his viewers’ conscience through Ayan’s eyes. A key example is in the way he uses the young cook Amali in his leading man’s residence. In an early scene, you notice her bump into Ayan’s room while he is changing. Few seconds of her awkwardness is quickly salvaged by him who affectionately addresses her as ‘Beta’, post which a sibling-like bond develops between the two. There is also a briefly distressing scene in the latter half that tests a conscientious viewer of his/her integrity. It is such through small yet powerful touches that Sinha exposes the threats that silently exist in our surroundings and also what exactly is he trying to communicate through his slowly evolving brand of cinema which seems to have come a long way since his debut romantic outing Tum Bin.
As Article 15 closes in a reassuring fashion, one wonders what the film could have been with fewer characters and elements. Ones like Satyendra never fully develops throughout the film and once it finally does, we have already lost interest in him. The local builder Anshu, on the other hand, is omnipresent but his final scene takes away all the menace that he radiated without appearing too many times on the screen. That said, what Sinha concentrates solely is in his noble social message that the film delivers with dexterity. There are cinematic liberties thrown in reasonable volumes but not at the cost of canvassing a framework that is unrealistic or unfair to its premise.
It only helps that Sinha has a leading man learns the ways of this alien world gradually. His transformation is organic and the contrast is evident between him and the people he is presently dealing with. Brought up across various parts of Europe, Ayan is someone who drives with his seat belt on by default whereas his colleagues, despite being the law-and-order keepers, do not feel the need for it. Even for Khurrana himself, Ayan belongs to unfamiliar territory and ditto for the audience who are used to seeing him in lighter parts. The actor takes the challenge up and dishes out a performance that is way up there in the leagues of acting virtuosos who could communicate everything that’s on the screenplay and still add a sprinkle of individuality. To pick an instance, Khurrana’s final confrontation with the bitter CBI official Mr. Panicker (Nasser) contains everything that’s needed to reinforce this statement. On the acting front, the rest of the cast looks equally in place, if not better. Sayani Gupta as Gaura is a revelation as the Dalit woman who is in search of her sister and is also in a relationship with Nishad (Ayyub). The latter himself is a scene-stealer in a role that bags him just about two-and-a-half concrete scenes.
Cinematography (Ewan Mulligan) is one of the high points in Article 15 as it suitable creates a mood that is grim and unnerving. The gloomy green tint dominates the colour palette and we also get to see several telling still frames which delectably stay on for an extra second for us to ponder. The background score (Mangesh Dhakde) is topnotch and the usage of songs like ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Vaishnava Jana To’ is timely and effortless – which is further amplified by first-rate sound design which captures every murmur, thud and screeching halt to perfection.
As for Anubhav Sinha’s storytelling style, Article 15 is clearly a notch above 2018’s Mulk. His writing seems to less on theatrics and, this time around, the extremes that the film touches are fewer. The film’s universe appears real to a very large extent and so are its inhabitants. Article 15’s twists do not make us wonder with disbelief but rather constructs a thought and the need for a change in the nation’s existing narrative.s While it is not a mandate for fiction features to become a medium for social awakening, films like Article 15 are completely worth the effort provided that they touch their core theme with remarkable honesty while also packing in a good load of commercial film entertainment.
Author at Filmy Sasi