Set in the rural village of Lalgaon in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, Article 15 recently released in 2019, as its name suggests refers to the provision mentioned in the Indian Constitution that prohibits discrimination of any citizen on the grounds of race, caste, sex, religion, etc. However, when young IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted in the countryside, he is suddenly faced with the harsh reality of the socio-political situation in India. It seems that the film was based on many real life occurrences including the Badaun gang rape allegations (2014) and the Una flogging incident (2016).
Cinematography plays an important role in developing the overall dark and gloomy ambience, alternating between scenes depicting early mornings in the vast open fields followed by two figures hanging from a tree in silhouette. The background score intensifies and builds up according to the pace of the narrative, enhancing the suspense and chilling effect. Ayushmann looks convincing in his character as an ideological man with a privileged upbringing, having certain expectations from his country that gets shattered after he witnesses first hand the corruption and caste disparity prevalent among his co-workers in the office.
The protagonist’s character growth is commendable, from that of a naive officer to a hardened professional. He experiences great emotional discomfort and physical resistance as he tries to examine criminal cases in his upright manner with an aggressive attitude and relentless frame of mind without submitting to bureaucratic pressure from his superiors above, which he is also able to conveniently swipe aside because of his personal connections with other influential people, a loop hole that makes his character less reliable in aspects of his virtues. However, Ayan’s constant struggle to confront discrimination helps us to reach a mutual understanding and acceptance of the bitter truth.
One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is the one in which a Dalit manual labourer enters the sewer to clean the waste accumulated within the drains by lowering himself inside it and then emerges out from underneath, his face and entire body covered in the black sludge and grime. It serves as examples to the kind of jobs that lower classes are condemned to deal with, notwithstanding the inhumane conditions of the work or the utter injustice of it. Another incident involves how two teenage girls are beaten, gang-raped and murdered for three rupees.
Nishad’s dialogue has a powerful impact, he says: “Main oor tum inhai dekhai he nahe dete… Hum kabhi Harijan hojate hai, kabhi Bahujan ho jate hai, bus Jan nahe ban pa rahain hai…” (We are invisible to them.. Sometimes we are ‘harijan’ and sometimes we are ‘bahujan’, we are never considered as ordinary people like everyone else). Creating labels is equivalent to distinguishing them and categorizing them, either for suppressing them or for elevating them – it boils down to the same discrimination in essence. What the people really desire is to become ordinary, to be treated like everyone else.
A significantly problematic perspective in this film is the fact that Ayan, the deliverer of justice and judgement is himself an upper caste Brahmin, thereby failing to subvert the notion of caste discrimination that the films attempts to demonstrate. These acts as a mirror to society, reflecting the present scenario as it is in real life, thus showing us how deeply rooted our prejudices are. Though it is not easy to fight such centuries old traditions and misconceptions, such films encourage us to start thinking. Since Mulk (2018), Anubhav Sinha has been trying his best to rattle our senses regarding such atrocities and to urge us to question ourselves.
Like most Bollywood Hindi mainstream movies, Article 15, ends on an unlikely positive note, with all the bad men put into the jail or otherwise punished and the hero back in the arms of his lover, the problems of the society henceforth glossed over; nonetheless, it significantly initiates the discourse on social injustices and caste discrimination. Despite its flaws, it’s a crime thriller that successfully keeps the audience enraptured in its storytelling and is worth watching as it sheds light on issues and subjects that are usually invisible in mainstream movies.