Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Sushil Pandey, Sayani Gupta, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub
The posting was a punishment. Ayan Ranjan, newly minted Indian Police Service officer, the tuck of his shirt crisp as a new banknote, readily admits the reason he’s sentenced to the bleak badlands of Uttar Pradesh. Ranjan had agreed with a senior officer without sounding officious enough — he had said “Cool, sir”, a yes-man who forgot his only line — and that perceived insubordination was enough to land him in a world where half the people didn’t touch the other half.
Article 15, Anubhav Sinha’s searing new film about the indignities endorsed by the caste-system in modern day India, does not play it cool. Inspired by the real-life Badaun killings — and paying stirring tribute to Alan Parker’s 1988 procedural thriller Mississippi Burning — this film about discrimination features policemen hushing up the murder and gang-rape of three 15-year-old girls because they belong to a ‘lower’ caste. Us, and them. It is a grim, unrelenting and essential film, one throwing up things we choose not to think about.
“Welcome to Page 7 India,” says Ranjan’s wife, when he calls and texts her, his eyes wide with newly discovered outrage at the plight of the Dalits and the downtrodden in middle India. Reports about real atrocity are relegated to the little-read middle of the paper, far from the front and sport pages. Ayan, a young Brahmin who likes his single malt and walks around with a holster suavely sticking out from underneath a well-cut blazer, feels as strange to that locale as an Englishman. The policemen below him are keen to make sure he isn’t some fool out to change the system based on renegade cop movies starring Ajay Devgn. ‘They get transferred,’ grunt old cops in the know, ‘while we get killed.’ Us, and them.
Written by Gaurav Solanki and Sinha, the film has the stench of honesty. It is hauntingly shot by Ewan Mulligan, who is evocative while shooting a frying paratha, a murky bus and — most unforgettably — a man diving in and out of a drain, cleaning our world because we wouldn’t do it ourselves. There is a brief sequence showing a religious rally, and I don’t remember seeing a more authentic crowd: they’re virtually foaming at the mouth.
Anubhav Sinha surrounds Ayushmann Khurrana with a superb ensemble.
As policemen plod through a marsh, Ranjan asks about politics, and they casually state why they vote for the Elephant one year and the Cycle the next, and for the parties their mothers told them to always vote for. Rebels use Whatsapp, and cops keep tabs on activism by seeing what messages are being forwarded. The filmmakers, meanwhile, cannily use Whatsapp to educate the leading man, the messages from his level-headed wife becoming the voice in his head. We do not need a hero, she tells him. We just need people to stop waiting for a hero.
Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ranjan with an inevitable entitlement. The elitist indignation with which he barks orders gets things done, but also distances him from the policemen answering to him. In one remarkable scene he matter-of-factly asks the cops about their places in the caste hierarchy, and the distinctions between caste-and-Kayastha are maddening. One says he is a Jaat, and was ‘normal,’ but has now been granted Other Backward Class status, while Jaats in other states have not. This is illegal, of course. Ranjan asking them their caste, I mean. Not the division but the pronouncement of it.
Khurrana is spot-on, consistently harrowed and, building on his everyman baggage as a leading man, immensely relatable. Here is an actor who is rarely showy and impressively true to the part, playing a protagonist who is aware he will be looked on as an upper-caste saviour, and that it isn’t his role.
Article 15 is not a film in search of easy answers.
Sinha surrounds him with a superb ensemble, led by Manoj Pahwa as an upper-caste cop. At one point his teeth are clenched so tight while berating an officer, it feels that he doesn’t trust himself to open his mouth for fear of biting someone of a lower status. Extraordinary performances come from Sushil Pandey as a lowly policeman who seems like the nicest bloody guy; Kumud Mishra as the son of a sweeper who is now a policeman (and yet relentlessly reminded of his background); and Sayani Gupta as a sister to a missing girl, with her gigantic plaintive eyes acting as an indictment of India itself.
The mercurial Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub plays a revolutionary, a rebel who can’t lose hope because he has become the face of it for his people. He gets some of the film’s most memorable lines, and heartbreakingly expresses how he has been so romanticised that he is left without romance. With all that’s wrong around him, it felt criminal for him to smile at the girl he loves. In the land that allows Us and Them, all pleasure feels guilty.
What do you do when the system is the bad guy? There are no revelations here. Article 15 is not a film in search of easy answers. Instead, it is a reminder that we already know the questions but don’t ask them enough. Not cool, sir.