IPS officer Ayan Ranjan ( Ayushmann Khurrana ) could be anyone of us — urban, educated, entitled, shielded from, if not entirely immured to the ugly ground realities of the country. The kind who would know little of or could even be entirely unaware of caste based discrimination owing to their own privileged position in the fundamentally unjust world. The journey of Ayan, as he takes charge of Lalgaon as upper police superintendent, becomes a cinematic primer of sorts for the distanced and the disengaged.
It begins with Ayan getting taken in with the beauty of the interiors with intimations of what lies ahead slipping in through Bob Dylan playing in the background: “Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?” A perfect reference point for him and well contrasted with the local folk song —“Kahab to lagi jaaye dhak se” — that talks of the yawning difference between the lives of the rich and the poor for whom even Rs 3 means a lot.
Soon there is shock at the realisation that he can’t buy a bottle of water from the village of the Pasi community even as his confidant Aditi (Isha Talwar) on the other side of the phone calls him “Lord Mountbatten lost in the Page 7 India”. It’s this demographic that writer Gaurav Solanki and filmmaker Anubhav Sinha seem to be addressing — those who can smugly dismiss caste talk because they are already entitled, while the stigma of caste and the concomitant biases is too finely entrenched to vanish with the individual political correctness and lack of prejudices of a few who are far removed from what Ayan himself calls the “wild wild west”. Here there are highs and lows even in Brahmins (Kanyakubj are better than Saryuparin) and the Dalits (Chamar over Pasi). Here the caste divides are referred to as ‘santulan’ (balance) brought in by Brahmaji. Sab barabar ho gaye to raja kaun banega? (If all turn equal who would be the king?) The moot point being do we need a king at all?
- Director: Anubhav Sinha
- Starring: Ayushmann Khurrana, Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Isha Talwar, Sayani Gupta, Ronjini Chakraborty, Nasser, Ashish Verma
- Run time: 130 minutes
- Storyline: IPS officer Ayan Ranjan takes charge of Lalgaon as upper police superintendent to find himself battling the class divides and investigating the murder of two young Dalit girls
Solanki and Sinha do well in showing the everyday discrimination and how they get internalised in the disenfranchised themselves. How they won’t offer pakodas from their plate to the upper caste officer or refuse to drink water from a glass at his place.
Reality forms the backdrop of the story — the Badaun gangrape and murder case of 2014 and the Una floggings of 2016 — as Ayan goes about investigating the murder of two young Dalit girls. The film invokes Article 15 of the Indian Constitution that prohibits discrimination on thegrounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. But the film is as much about caste as it is about the “coming of age”, if one could call it that, for Ayan through his encounter with the caste system.
Article 15 plays out like a thriller, almost monochromatic frames and the morning mist adding to the murkiness of things. There are quibbles. At times Sinha seems to be hitting the point home a bit too hard. But then can there be a ‘too much’ when it comes to an issue like this? Religious politics of the local mahant, the corruption of the contractor all get meshed in, at times chaotically and sloppily, in the showcasing of the blatant powerplay. Dalit leaders are not spared either — the kinds who make statues while they are in power and play the Dalit card when in opposition.
Ayan’s friend Satyendra’s character remains vague and undetermined, more like a device in the plot and one would have definitely wanted to see more of the underground Dalit revolutionaries, the Daliton ka Robinhood Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is electric) and Gaura (Sayani Gupta). But, the nitpicking aside, Sinha doesn’t lose the emotional grip on the audience, has you invest in the events and often even indicts and makes you feel guilty and culpable. Much of it is to do with the ensemble with which he weaves the social fabric. While Khurrana strides along with confidence, evolving along with each new film, Ayyub, Manoj Pahwa (Brahmadutt), Kumud Mishra (Jaatav) and Ashish Verma (Mayank) are riveting in their lived-in parts.
The tagline of the film states —“Farq bahut kar liya, ab farq laayenge (We discriminated, now we will bring about a change)”. Sinha lays the onus of the societal transformation on the privileged. They have to alter the lopsided canvas. Flipside of it is that at times Ayan gets rendered in too righteous and distinctly disquieting image of a messiah (the Brahmin saviour if you please), almost lifting the downtrodden in his two arms, while they obsequiously thank him with folded hands.
Then there is the scene where he tells Aditi that he never saw the look in her eyes for him, the way he saw in Gaura’s for Nishad. The irony of the deprivation of the rich and the privileged as against the supposed wealth of the poor. On the other hand in a contrasting sequence you have Nishad talking of not being able to see the moon for even five minutes, not being able to dip his feet in a river for five minutes, never seeing true happiness with his ladylove for five minutes. Article 15 might be Ayan’s film but it’s Nishad’s tale that needs to be told urgently now as an accompanying piece. Days after watching the film the lasting image is that of Ayyub as Nishad, twirling his moustache like Chandra Shekhar Azad, saying “hum akhiri thode na hain”. He is not the last one to take on the oppression in this on-going hard fought battle.