Privilege of ignorance
After the powerful Mulk, which courageously spoke up for Muslims terrorised in a Hindutva-driven India, Sinha tackles the caste system that flourishes, despite Article 15 of the Constitution
Article 15 by Anubhav Sinha is a courageous, stinging slap in the face of Indian patriots who smugly believe in achche din. Achche din for whom exactly? It makes visible what is invisible to the upper castes and privileged: the gang rape and murder of low-caste girls; stripping and flogging of Dalit men; horrific exploitation of labour; how an entire chain of police, judiciary, politicians and whole communities, keeps the caste system entrenched.
After the powerful Mulk, which courageously spoke up for Muslims terrorised in a Hindutva-driven India, Sinha tackles the caste system that flourishes, despite Article 15 of the Constitution, that prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. The film is a police procedural and social drama. It is framed as the classic outsider-gets-a-primer set-up, in which Brahmin IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), posted to Lalgaon village in Uttar Pradesh, learns how complicated caste nuances determine everything, and the privileged audience learns with him. He arrives to find two low-caste girls hanging lifeless from a tree: the police and CBI conspire to quickly close the case. When Ranjan investigates, he learns the truth, that the girls — child labour — had asked for just '3 more in wages, for which they were gang-raped, murdered, and hanged from a tree, as a warning to other low castes not to reach above their station. There are references to real-life incidents, including the Badaun gang rape and the murder case of two low-caste girls in 2014, the Una incident, where low-caste men were flogged in 2016, the Nirbhaya gang rape in the bus, the baba-turned-politician trying to engineer Brahmin-Dalit unity. But the film does not spare venal low-caste politicians either.
The climax can be seen as Ranjan being in Brahmin-saviour mode. But, in fact, the film is asking the privileged, to admit their privilege and start addressing centuries-old injustice. There is marvellous irony in a round-robin caste scene, underlining how only the privileged can afford to be ignorant of caste. The story is layered, with caste politics and venality within the police force, including Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra (both fine actors). And the politics and love stories of Dalits, Gaura (Sayani Gupta) and Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, excellent) are contrasted with the cold chemistry of Ranjan and Aditi (Isha Talwar).
The direction is compelling and tells it like it is. The screenplay, by Sinha and Gaurav Solanki, is gritty and spares no one. When Vande Mataram plays, it is hard to hold back your tears. Ranjan is not a vigilante, but a privileged "Britisher", horrified by his own country. Khurrana, keen risk-taker, owns the role with a quiet determination. Ewan Mulligan's cinematography is atmospheric as it uncovers the darkness. Yasha Ramchandani's editing is efficient. The opening folk song, and closing rap song Shuru Karein Kya are both powerful, even though the rap seems a bit out of tone with the film.
Caste issues have been tackled by Indian filmmakers down the ages. Hindi cinema's films on caste include Franz Osten's Achhut Kanya (1936), Satyajit Ray's Sadgati and Shyam Bengal's Ankur and Samar, to Prakash Jha's Aarakshan and Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan. Marathi films include Nagraj Manjule's Sairat and Chaitanya Tamhane's Court. Tamil films include John Abraham's Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village), Pa Ranjith's Kaala and Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal. Malayalam films include Vidhu Vincent's Manhole, Rajeev Ravi's Kammattipaadam and Shanavas Bavakutty's Kismath. Bravo to Sinha and Zee Studios for the courage to produce a film like this, given the current ruling, right-wing nationalism. A must-see film.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
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