Ayushmann Khurrana actively sought out the film Article 15. The actor saw Mulk, a powerful and persuasive plea for religious unity, and called the film’s director, Anubhav Sinha. Anubhav offered him a rom-com. Ayushmann asked instead for something gritty and hard-hitting. So the director pulled out a half-written script, which was inspired by the horrific Badaun case of 2014 in which two sisters (both minor) were found hanging from a tree.
Ayushmann immediately said yes, allotted dates and wrapped the film up in 32 days. Article 15 is that rare thing — a mainstream Hindi movie that confronts caste in India. The film got made because an A-list actor propelled it.
This is the tough truth of Bollywood. In the last 15 years, new generations of directors and writers have reworked the narratives and the form of Hindi cinema but the biggest drivers of change are still actors. Actors constitute their own planetary systems, with favoured directors, producers, writers, studios, stylists, managers, make-up artists, publicists and social media mavens circling them. Bollywood has always been a star-struck industry but actors now seem to have even more clout — they are essential not just for making movies but also for brands, events (from weddings to award shows to book launches), magazine covers (even magazines about architecture and travel) and of course social media amplification. When an actor posts about something, it usually catapults it into the larger consciousness.
But with great power comes great responsibility. When I interviewed Ayushmann about Article 15, he said that it was an artiste’s responsibility to do a film like this. He added that the success of Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho last year and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Bareilly Ki Barfi the year before gave him the courage to do Article 15 and that he wasn’t invested in how it ultimately fared at the box office.
The social responsibility of an artiste is an ongoing debate but we definitely need them to make braver choices. A studio head told me that male actors especially are caught in the trap of opening-day figures. Ayushmann also admitted that it was tough to find a love interest for the sequel, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, in which he plays a gay character. After all, if you need to beat the record-breaking first day collections of Salman Khan (Rs 42 crore for Bharat) or Aamir Khan (Rs 50 crore for Thugs of Hindostan), how much can you experiment?
So it’s important to applaud Ayushmann, who, since Vicky Donor in 2012, has been pushing the boundaries of what is permissible in a mainstream Hindi film. He has constructed a career on risky choices, and with every success he has helped to expand the limits for actors and filmmakers. May his tribe increase