Article 15: Article of Faith for Fraternity, Equality and Liberty

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Mulk was a social critique of prejudice polluting perception afflicting majority minority interaction and painting of a whole community in one brush. In Article 15, Anubhav Sinha goes to another level of giving stinging social comment on prevalent prejudice based on caste.

Sushil Kumar

Poster of Article 15 film

Depicting, dissecting and demolishing prejudice plaguing Indian nation building, seems to have become a personal movie making mission for Anubhav Sinha (AS). His last acclaimed movie namely ‘Mulk’ was a brilliant social critique of protracted mutual perception, progressively powered by prejudice, afflicting minority- majority mindset and inter-mixing.

Fighting prevalent prejudices through stirring social consciousness and collective conscience has become an article of faith and has taken AS to make movie namely ‘Article 15’. It takes the subject of religious prejudice portrayed in Mulk to an equally powerful, deep rooted prejudice afflicting all round with ill-will against a community pejoratively called as Scheduled Castes (ironically due to listing in Schedule of the Constitution meant to bestow social benefits). The prejudice, both overt and covert, permeates entire State edifice and social fabric despite guaranteed protection enshrined under Article 15 of Indian Constitution against such prejudice. These two powerful protracted prejudices continue to pose integration problems of nearly similar percentage of population into the national mainstream. In fact, the film Article 15 incorporated far more nuanced narrative than Mulk as it depicts how this prejudice continues to prevail despite legal protection. And has permeated all through in day to day functioning of institutions and administrative apparatus of the State itself; ironically these have been constitutionally mandated to protect such people against this very poisonous prejudice.

Movies like Mulk’s success lies in their ability to stir people’s souls by showing a mirror of society’s sickly treatment of a segregated section of society, continuing since several millennia . Mulk beautifully reminded us all about the poison of prejudice posing mis/perception problems, that is still perpetuating minority-majority muddle persisting since a millennium. This situation shouldn’t have continued after India declared India itself to be a secular, democratic republic, wedded to universal principles of liberty, equality, fraternity (inspired by the French Revolution) that are embodied in Article 15, amongst others, of the Constitution. Without being prescriptive Mulk summarized by making a strong statement that individual deviance or anecdotal evidence (by inductive logic) shouldn’t be chosen to generally paint a whole community as communalized or contaminated. It was indeed surprising that movie such a sensitive subject passed muster at the Censors and even found commercial success.

In case one missed to observe, successive successes of Mulk and Article 15 symbolise a rebirth or a virtual renaissance of socio -realism reflected on reels; it can be called a neo realism cinema genre- Benegal, Nihalini et al- that seemingly went under after the advent of soft sentimentalist stylised cinema, symbolized by Shah Rukh, which coincided with middle class and small town boom. Since mid-nineties, for nearly twenty-five years, this soft focused showing of softened or sanitized love and sentimentality reigned supreme, till people got weary of watching this recurrent motif. After all, world’s exquisite locales and high couture donned dance sequences started to look similar and stale. Choreographers experimental capacities are limited with break and modern dance and music beats whether it be rock or rap.

As stated, elaborate song and dance sequences that softened reality pushed ‘realism’ cinema out of fashion. But the existential issues of daily struggles can be wished/ whisked away from the screen. After all, how long one can live with sanitized reality scripted on-screen. Like fashion, every few decades, when original ideas are unavailable, scriptwriters have to regress and repackage old stories to current social context. One example- after four decades, Sairat was repackaged as Dhadak and was a redux version of Ek Dujey Key Liy with region element substituted with caste to make it contextual with current times. Similarly, Mulk and Article 15 are renaissance versions of Manthan, Nishant, Ankur with urban context updated from feudal contexts of the earlier films.

AS masterfully makes a mélange by wonderfully weaving a beautiful web containing multiple motifs and metaphors; Article 15 turns out to be a composite whole, without any element seemingly sticking out of place or context. In today’s reality, each of these motifs, either individually or collectively continue to be pushed underneath, bursting on surface from to time to time, pricking individual and social conscience. Anubhav’s mastery lies in drawing, yet disguising, socially uncomfortable questions that often cause so much strife in real life that their screen depiction is simply shunned. He provokes us all into deep introspection a la Guru Dutt, Benegal, Govind Nihalini mode (Pyasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Nishant, Manthan, Ankur, Bhoomika, Ardh Satya); he shows us the mirror mirroring existing sharp social edges and yet has the talent to not cause enough wound or hurt or social rift of serious proportion. Consider how difficult it is to tell a realistic story of perception of prejudice colouring minority majority muddle marring many societies. In Article 15 too, he brilliantly mixes up issues of caste prejudice, dichotomous duality of India’ reality of Bharat (rural) and India (urban) with concomitant contrarian consciousness, all pervading corruption, apathy, social ‘unconscious’ ridden with guilt conscience, social status quo syndrome, rotting administrative edifice, contractor-official- politico nexus vitiating entire institutional edifice and many more. All these are there without film positing prescriptive principles or immediate solutions.

Let’s now consider movie’s multiple motifs : brutal rape and murder of two girls as extension of power domination by contractor-administrative apparatus; public outcry pushing police to propagate suicide theory due to same sex shaming (severe social sanction till recent Supreme Court judgement softened Section 377 of IPC), caste coloured public relations of public offices, investigative cover ups, botched up investigation even by the CBI, contractor -administration corruption nexus , post mortem mess in most homicidal deaths, DNA based identification ; attribution to honour killings etc. In case you thought that these elements are too many, remember all these elements were inextricably enmeshed in that infamous Badayun case of 2014-15 that hit headlines all over the world.

Other movie images emanate from infamous image of bare upper torsoed young men with hands tied behind backs and brutally flogged publicly by a mob administering vigilante justice; Dalits sanitation workers striking back with State wide strike , leaving dirt and rotting carcasses on roads and public buildings ( Una incident in Gujarat); despite ban declaration, sanitation workers’ continuing gut wrenching gutter like real world existence, aggravated by descending in excreta filled sewers( film has a shot that was imprinted in people’s mind by a still photograph posted worldwide) without safety gears and often suffocating to death by poisonous gases ( Kanpur, Gurgaon 2019 );caste affiliated voting behavior (specially UP/Bihar) ; grassroots democracy demanding surface reconciliation of irreconcilables like the Dalits- Brahmin deal and public display of bonhomie at least to wrest political power ( Mayawati and Satish Mishra experiment) ; Mahants crossing over from mandirs to win elections and power (UP ); photo-op and lip service of high caste politicians spending nights and apparently breaking commensality taboos by dining with Dalits with food still brought separately ( UP, Karnataka); encounter killings by police (Maharasthra, UP); exhortations to Dalits to rise, rebel in revenge (Bhim Army – symptomatic of reverse Sanskritization of Ranvir Sena motif); segregation of Dalits in schools; Dalits’ servile mind set in serving superiors in Govt service; castification of cop class ; symbolic empowerment through govt service though majority in class IV jobs which are now increasingly outsourced; civilizational gaps in rural and urban consciousness in India( protagonist listening to Bob Dylan and Dalits singing in opening scene ( Ambedkari Jalsa/ Shahiri – remember old man in film Court);

As again uses the universal societal reality of ‘Us and Them’ after Mulk where he depicted mutual mistrust between religious minority- majority. In this film, he uses terms like ‘unki auquaat’ to mean many things: ascribed social roles based on birth/caste, sanctified social stratification/segregation, social suppression/caste oppression continuum even through State systems. Article 15 shows how despite State avowed aim to ensure equality of law, one social segment still continues to be denied justice and equality. Film wonderfully depicts how segmentation, if not actual segregation, of social groups. This remains almost an insurmountable challenge despite over seventy years of independence.

In keeping with serious subject and sombre social and State suppression, the ubiquitous song and dance routine is shunned; but in keeping with the times, one rap song accompanies the film credits in the end (Dalits are developing their alternate music stars and following in Punjab).

For millenia, Scheduled Castes’ seething anger couldn’t find expression but after independence, numerical necessity in elections have enabled them to transit from a voiceless to a vocal community. Moreover, in keeping with worldwide trend, well do social segments do carry a part of collective social guilt and to overcome that, as it were, seek to ‘compensate’ them through affirmative action (for Blacks in America) or reservation (India). America has seen several movements for assertion of equality (Black Caucus, Black Panthers, Civil Rights movement). Despite 150 years of Black’s emancipation, struggle still continues.

Culturally, Blacks in America, through music like the Jazz/Blues, have created a parallel worldview. Blacks have their own film and music icons. In India, the parallel cultural patterns are just about beginning to emerge but separate entertainment television channels or film icons are still a way off. In the film, the body language of Inspector Jatav (Kumud Mishra) clearly shows an apologist mindset that characterizes anyone who enters the government service through reservation. Though famous songwriter Shailendra was reportedly a Dalit, his roots are never mentioned lest he is disowned. Dalit Business Association (DICCI) did come into existence in 2005 though.

What Anubhav Sinha does is to wonderfully reconcile and resolve divisive issues and leave audience with hope and feel good factor in a wish fulfilment way. Both Mulk and Article 15 favour finding a way to live with these contradictions instead of just wishing their existence away.
AS uses iconic immortal Bob Dylan’s song ‘Blow’in in the wind’ to remind us, after fifty years of its recording, that answers to protracted social problems are still in air and not on ground.

Acting wise, Ayushmann Khurana, coming from Roadies/MTV roadshow lineage and not from NSD/FTII stables, continues to surprise everyone with his abundant acting acumen and choice of socially relevant roles in alternate cinema, much like Abhay Deol did some years ago. His tonal intonations remind one of thespian Dilip Kumar. In the film, his grimaces, grim visage is in sync with serious subject. Don’t remember a single frame with his full smile on screen (excepting in last shot when he asks chaiwali chachi about her caste and all burst into laughter).

AS must be credited with discovering depths in acting talent of Manoj Pahwa; after extracting exceptional performance in Mulk as an endearing family man, he does so again by making the character of a cop, corrupt to the core, truly believable. His portrayal of provincial’s town potbellied, pan-chewing unshaven policeman, perfectly fits the persona of a stereotyped image of an unfit cop in ill-fitting unpressed uniform and ill-suited to policeman’s job. His body language specially the demeanour, gait, mannerisms with slipping trousers create a typical image of cop corrupted in being and duty; one who dumps legal responsibilities altogether in favour of State’s status quoism strategy of staying afloat by just about managing the muddled rural matters. Kumud Joshi is fast becoming a favorite of parallel cinema due to his informal and natural style of acting.

Gunnar Myrdal who wrote the famous book namely ‘Asian Drama’ has written on The American Dilemma that carries a legacy of African enslavement and forms of white supremacy. That dilemma is far softer version of the Indian Dilemma as it is many millennia old and continues due to scriptural sanction though being legally prohibited. No wonder the Scheduled Castes would continue to show afflictions of schizophrenia for times to come and would resort to all ‘escapism’ be it drugs or drinks.

Film’s rural locales are well chosen and amplify the rural feel and flavor. The bare bricked exteriors of Dalit ‘tolas’ and dilapidated school building also bring a genuine real rural feel.

Mercifully, AS’s both films, shun use of liberal use of expletives which was becoming a trend with films with similar subject. In fact, film’s dialogues are allusional despite being direct- like the references to auqaat. Dialogues are fairly well written when we take into account the verbal exchange between thespian Nasser and Ayushmann. The banter at the end of the film between Ayushmann Khurana while wading through waters is well crafted; it keeps the discussion on variation in caste decisions in elections light hearted and well meaning.

Though not acknowledged, Article 15 is almost a déjà vu revisit of Alan Parker’s film ‘Mississippi Burning’ (1988) that had two cops investigating disappearance of three civil rights activists including a Black. The film was inspired by real life events and had a layered and nuanced narrative viz. racism of Ku Klux Klan, equality under American Civil Rights Act 1964 forming the film’s backdrop, police brutality at workplace and home, investigation cover up, local community complicity in cover up etc. All these themes also figure in the nuanced narrative of Article 15. Hollywood has made several films depicting injustices meted out to minorities despite ensuring de-jure equality before law. Important films include To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time To Kill, famous documentary Freedom On My Mind, Amistad ,100 Years as Slave etc.

Indian films on Dalit subjects are far and few in between. Shyam Benegal did depict inclusion of Dalit segment in milk cooperative movement in movie Manthan. Satyajit Ray showed schizophrenic treatment of the subject and protagonists in film Sadgati. In fact, best biopic on life of Baba Bhimrao Ambedkar ended up being funded by the government of India.

AS keeps the interest alive by running parallel narratives and yet keeping it well knit. Film editor has done a good job of keeping the story well-knit despite events unfolding in non linear story sequence.

The music is muted in keeping with the subject. The shot making is fine except that drone technology is facilitating liberal use aerial shots much like film makers did when zoom lens came to be used. Most indoor shots use natural light and are low key and suit the theme of the film. The use of haze and fog is well used to convey ambiguity in perception problems in perceiving prejudice.

Seems prejudice jeopardizing nation building is becoming a forte of AS; Mulk was a brilliant social critique of prejudice polluting perception afflicting majority minority interaction and painting of a whole community in one brush. In this film, he goes to another level of giving stinging social comment on prevalent prejudice based on caste. He covered community vs creed case confronting India in Mulk; here he does that for caste. His brand of the social realism cinema is in keeping with another transformational turn that is overtaking India, with village community coming closer to city life and consciousness. I guess his next film could be prejudice prevalent against the tribals or LGBTQ community. His last two films basic content and message can be summarized by one single word–humanism. Bravo Mr. Anubhav Sinha. Thanks for making us all think and ponder a thing or two and act.

(Author is an avid fan of films and sports. He writes on cultural events like theatre and music occasionally. He also does book reviews and writes on the subject of Disaster Management. As a professional, he belongs to Indian Administrative Service and presently serving as Additional Secretary with the Government of India.)