‘Article 15’ is a critique of casteism: Gaurav Solanki

Screenwriter Gaurav Solanki talks about the text and subtext of the Anubhav Sinha film whose gripping plotline and social context has generated interest at the box office

Teaming up with director and co-writer Anubhav Sinha on “Article 15”, Gaurav Solanki has crafted a screenplay that hit home with huge box office draws and a compelling narrative on contemporary issues. The journey from IIT-Roorkee to Hindi films has taken the writer through numerous twists and turns, bringing together his passion for literature and cinema.

Plotting the story

For Solanki, tying up an array of socio-political issues into a seamless screenplay was an exciting challenge when he started working on “Article 15”. “Triggered by the Badaun rape case, Anubhav (Sinha) had already started writing a script. There were other aspects like the Bhim Army and the situation of the sewer workers that we wanted to highlight. When I began working on the draft, this seemed almost impossible, but this is what I love to do as a writer — bring a lot of different things, different characters together, and merge seemingly unrelated things.”

For the writer-duo it was important to match the film’s hard-hitting take on caste politics with a gripping plotline that would balance critical acclaim with commercial success. “We didn’t want to make an art film, we wanted it to be within the mainstream cinema and that was another challenge as a scriptwriter.” The process involved multiple drafts, intense work on the characters and careful layering. Solanki reflects, “There are two layers within the script that were really important to maintain throughout — one is the socio-political aspect which is the theme that we delve into, and the other is the thriller, that makes the story engaging. Each scene has been written and re-written keeping this at the forefront — what do we want to say here, and how is the story moving forward?”

On casteism

The film has been criticised for reinforcing the Brahmin saviour complex with an upper-caste protagonist (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) who emerges heroic towards the end. Solanki quietly disagrees with this perspective and clarifies, “The IPS officer, Ayan, is a privileged North Indian, upper caste, entitled male who actually doesn’t realise his privileges. His intentions are not bad, but he is naive, and though he loves his country, coming from a privileged urban, male position, he does not clearly understand the ground reality. It is the story of his evolution, his vulnerability and the transformation in his perspective.” Solanki reveals that at one point, the writers also toyed with the idea of a woman protagonist, yet after much discussion dropped this because, “even if a woman was upper caste and urban, she would still not be as absolutely entitled and privileged as her male counterpart, and that is the population we wanted to hold up a mirror to.”

Emphasising the point that it was critical to tap into the minds of the westernised city dweller who may be oblivious to caste politics and other socio-political realities, Solanki says it was important to address how this segment of audience thinks, and to create a protagonist who is disturbingly relatable for them. “Having studied at IIT, and having lived in Delhi, I have come across many people, in fact colleagues and peers from privileged backgrounds, who often raise questions like —‘if there is equality, why is reservation required!’ Now I have often debated about this in the past but I wanted to anchor the film on this as a sub-text, to respond to this through what we show on screen. The character of Ayan is a representation of those people in many ways, who are well-intentioned but do not understand the centuries of Dalit struggle, or the stark socio-political realities. We wanted that middle class to leave the hall with a question in their head.”

Solanki opines that there is a distinction between the ‘hero’ and ‘protagonist’ that often gets conflated. “First and foremost, the character is not a hero, and he is not shown as one. It is unfortunate if people felt that he emerges as a saviour, but he is actually quite clueless about the system and constantly relies on his partner (Aditi, played by Isha Talwar) for insights. He is not shown as a champion for the Dalit cause, but as a Brahmin ally. Since the character is played by a star like Ayushmann Khurrana, there is a general tendency to assume he is the hero in this story, but he is only the entry point.”

On the other hand, there is the character of Nishad (played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) — the young Dalit activist. “His voice in the film is of critical significance,” reflects Solanki. “He is not purely dependent on any one figure, but ideologically he represents aspects of Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, and draws from the stories of Rohith Vemula, even Bhagat Singh.” Placing the characters of Ayan and Nishad as the pivots of the script was an important strategy for Solanki. “Both the characters are essentially alone in their struggles against the system and need each other.” Returning to the criticism about the Dalit rebel being subsumed by the heroism of the Brahmin saviour, Solanki says, “It is actually Nishad who has the traditional heroic qualities, not Ayan. But the system won’t change overnight and there are many compromises for both characters on the path of justice and righteousness. Clearly, the film does not criticise any one caste, it is a critique of casteism.”

Creating characters

Solanki’s writing process begins with images of the characters, moving on to a definition of their traits. “I want my characters to be layered, not just good or bad. Brahmadatt (Manoj Pahwa) and Jaatav (Kumud Mishra), show the different social and ideological positions within casteism and their dynamic changes as the story progresses.”

Poetry plays an important part in Solanki’s aesthetics. The Punjabi rebel-poet Pash, inspired the commentary and certain scenes featuring Nishad, converging anger and romance. Solanki himself has been writing poetry for many years now. He has written the lyrics for films beginning with “Ugly” (2014), and “Article” 15 is his maiden screenplay.

Life journey

His foray into the world of words began early in life, as an avid reader and movie buff. “Middle class expectations and small-town anxieties drove me to IIT to get a stable career. I even worked for a while as an engineer in Gurgaon, after my studies. But my heart wasn’t in it. I kept writing, blogging, hunting for publishers and receiving piles of rejections.”

He received Bharatiya Jnanpeeth’s Navlekhan Award in 2017 for his first poetry collection “Sau Saal Fida” and returned it, when his stories were charged with being ‘vulgar’. “What is the point of awarding me when it is accompanied by moral policing!”

Expanding on his upcoming projects and his work vision he says, “I don’t want to churn out stories, I want to say something meaningful through my work. I want to start a conversation in your head. I constantly ask myself whether I have something important to say, and the answer should emotionally and ideologically satisfy me, only then would I write.”

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 2:54:00 PM |

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