Article 15 review: Ayushmann Khurrana ignites the flame of justice in a hard hitting crime thriller

Director Anubhav Sinha’s crime thriller draws your attention to the dark realities of casteism in India

Rating: 5/5 stars

By Mayur Lookhar

Ayushmaan Khurrana in Article 15 (2019)

For a society that is divided on caste lines, its constitution, designed by Dalit icon Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, was meant to restore some parity.  69 years later, while reservation in government jobs and educational institutes was designed to uplift the oppressed, downtrodden, it has done little to eradicate casteism.  Livelihood is still a distant dream for many Dalits [people belonging to lower castes in India]. Most of them are simply fighting for their basic human right, a right to live without fear.

Article 15 of the Indian constitution states that there should be no discrimination on grounds of caste, religion, sex, race and place of birth. More than reminding us of Article 15, director Anubhav Sinha throws light on the grim reality of the Indian society.

Additional Commissioner Ayan Ranjan [Ayushmann Khurrana]  is recently posted in a small district in Uttar Pradesh.  He’s not too amused by the flattery of his subordinates, led by CO (Circle Officer) Bhramadatt Singh [Manoj Pahwa].  At his welcome party, Ranjan is intrigued by the presence of a few poor men and a woman. Upon inquiry, he learns of the disappearance of three Dalit girls. 

Few days later, the bodies of two teens are found hanging from a tree, while the third girl is still missing.  Word goes around that the girls were in a relationship that was unacceptable to their respective fathers, who then killed them to protect their honour.  Ranjan though knows that is anything but the truth. His investigation leads to shocking revelations.

While the disclaimer says it’s a piece of fiction, Sinha’s Article 15 is loosely based on the death of two Dalit girls from Badaun District [ Uttar Pradesh] in 2014. 

His previous film Mulk (2018) was about victimization on ground of one’s religion, Article 15 exposes the ugly side of casteism, vote bank politics.  Just as Mulk, Article 15 too asks asked hard questions to the society.  Communalism, hate crimes are a stark reality, but the film also poses serious questions to the Dalit leadership, or the lack of it.  When your own sees you as a vote bank, how can you expect justice?   

Sinha creates Nishad [Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub], formerly a political pawn, now deemed a threat by his political mentor.  Nishad is the frail but lone hope for the oppressed Dalits.  A failed social system will give rise to rebellion, but the dream of equality, justice can never be achieved through violence. It only compounds the woes for minorities.  

The irony of the age-old caste system is that while the lower castes are discriminated, the upper caste still need them to do their menial jobs. And when there is mass protests, non-cooperation movement, the social media friendly urbanites mock them as illiterate, unemployed lot out to disturb their normal lives.

The voices of the aggrieved would never reach their ears, but it’s more agonising when you are let down by your own ilk. Constable Jatav [Kumud Mihsra] has a job, but he’s rendered helpless by a corrupt system. What demoralises the Dalits is the discrimination within the discriminated. As Jatav merrily says to Ayan, “Sir, we are Chamars [tanners], they [victim and their families] are Pasis [pig farmers]. They are much lower than us,”

There are subtle digs taken at fascist political forces, but Article 15 is just a mirror reflecting the social, political reality of India.

The film stands out for its gripping story, fine writing, pulsating background score, Ewan Mulligan’s stunning photography. The gloomy color fits perfectly into film’s dark theme. Man hunt in swamps, cleaners dipping into sewers with their heads uncovered is not a sight for the faint hearted but these images are a reminder that despite cleaning our dirt, they [Dalits], sadly, still don’t have our respect.

 A hard hitting tale is backed by stellar acts, led by the dependable Ayushmann Khurrana . The talented Khurrana regales in his maiden noir film with a matured, understated act.  The bushy moustache perhaps adds years to his character, but it’s the maturity of Khurrana that helps him pull off this character with elan.  For large parts, Ayan Ranjan carries a bewildered look but it’s his steely resolve that helps him sees through things.

Indian filmmakers have a tendency to fall prey to formulaic compulsions, that often sees a female protagonist being imposed on such scripts. Social activist Aditi [Isha Talwar] offers a pleasant surprise. She is an ideal partner for Ayan.  No, theirs is not a blissful marriage. In fact, this relationship begins on a rocky note, one mired in a clash of pragmatism versus activism. They share the frame just once, but they look out for each other timely through their communication, often via text messages.

With Mulk, Sinha unleashed the intense actor in comedian Manoj Pahwa. And in Article 15, Pahwa shows a rare mean and sinister side to him.  The seasoned actor puts up another stunning show. 

Kumud Mishra, a late bloomer, too is exemplary as constable Jatav. Long caught between the pressure of duty and morality, Jatav eventually finds his heart in the right place

 The likes of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sayani Gupta, who plays  Gaura, the elder sister of the missing girl Pooja, and the unheralded Ronjini Chakraborty, who plays Malti, the competent assistant of an incompetent forensic expert, play their parts to the T. Veteran South Indian film industry actor Nassar shines as Panicker, the suave, Hindi speaking Central Bureau of Investigation officer from South India. Panicker’s contentious position on the case mirrors the controversial Central Bureau of Investigation report on the alleged 2014 Badaun gang rape and murder.

Is it wise to base on your story on an incident where the final judgment is still awaited? Perhaps, that calls for debate. The lone criticism, if any, against the film is some poor sub titling.

As they hunt for Pooja in the swamp, Khurrana’s subordinates quiz each other on who they voted for in the state elections.  There is no constant voting pattern in their answer.  The consensus among the police is they’ve voted for different parties at different point of time, but their lives nor the lives around them hasn’t changed. The political parties aren’t named but their party symbols are.

It’s immaterial whether you are a Brahmin, Rajput or Dalit, here we have officers belonging to different castes, laughing bonding over their electoral choice. Hate crimes will not cease any time soon, but what worries a united India is the lack of strong political will to tackle the beast head on. There in lies the rut. If you can’t read [probably not want to] or understand Article 15, watch Anubhav Sinha’s film and open your eyes to some dark truth. Just as Ayan, you’d be left fuming, “What the fuck is going on!”

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