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Article 15, Review: Beatings, gang-rapes, murder and other factual fiction

Article 15, Review: Beatings, gang-rapes, murder and other factual fiction

Part III, Fundamental Rights, Rights to Equity, Article 15, of the Indian Constitution, declares that, ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.’ It further proclaims that citizens too shall not discriminate against each other on these bases, and specifies the areas with regard to which there cannot be any discrimination, like access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort, maintained wholly or partly out of State funds, or dedicated to the use of the general public. For more on the subject, watch the movie Article 15.

Article 15, the film, is based on the rapes and murders in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh (a state in northern India), in May 2014, where the bodies of two minor girls were found hanging from a mango tree. All evidence pointed to gang-rape and murder, but it appeared that the authorities were trying to cover-up the case, and put forth ‘honour killing’ as the reason for their murders, by their own families. Mumbai-based film-maker, Mayurica Biswas, made a documentary in 2015, called 'Voices under the Mango tree', which made an in-depth examination of the incident. The present feature puts in a disclaimer, pretending that it is a work of fiction, probably out of compulsion, under the directive of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

It was reported in a publication yesterday that apart from removing the visual of the national flag falling in flames halfway into the film, and decreasing 30% of visuals showing beating up of individuals before that, the CBFC ‘requested’ two sound changes too, proposing that a word with sexual overtones ought to be supplanted with saala (literal meaning wife’s brother, but usually used as an abuse) and a “slanderous word directed towards guardians” with karamjali (seared by misdeeds). Meanwhile, in December 2015, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) court of Badaun rejected CBI’s closure report. Additional district judge Virendra Kumar Pandey dismissed the CBI’s closure report, and summoned for the prime accused Pappu. The case continues, and the CBFC suggested changes might have been made as the matter is sub-judice. A cinematic re-enactment of the case could influence the judicial proceedings, it might have felt.

A country that has a 70% population of backward classes continues to discriminate against them, treating most of them as untouchables and subjecting them to heinous crimes, like bonded labour, brutal beatings, rape and murder. Laudable theme and noble cause, to transcribe on to film. Real-life incident, just five years old, at the core, and the wherewithal of the cinematic medium to show the blood and gore, muck and pluck, makes very good cinematic material. This kind of film could be an educating experience for foreigners and hot material for film festivals and award juries.

Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Ayaan Ranjan arrives at a remote district outpost in village Lalgaon, to take charge as the new Additional (Police Commissioner, I presume). He is recently married and has a home in Delhi, from where his wife hooks-up with him via video calls. Right from his arrival, almost his entire retinue start briefing and cautioning him about the ramifications of the caste system, beginning with the practice of high caste (Brahmins) persons not accepting anything from ‘untouchables’ (called Dalits or Scheduled Castes (SC)/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes (OBC), including water or food. Instead of going down that road, Ranjan pooh-poohs the system, which has sub-castes within castes, at various levels in the hierarchy.

Initially, he is merely peeved by all these outdated, outrageous customs, but when the corpses of two minor girls are found hanging from a mango tree under his watch, and when his wife eggs him on by telling him that he may not be a hero, but he should stop waiting for a hero to come and make a difference, he takes the caste and political mafia head-on. Ayaan’s resolve turns to steel when he learns that the girls were gang-raped before being murdered, merely because they refused to accept Rs. 25 (USD 0.36 at present rates) a day as wages, demanding the pro-rata wages of Rs. 28 (USD 0.40) instead, for working in a tannery.

It’s a bold move, for he knows that the primary accused is an influential person and has connections in Delhi, the seat of the central government. What he does not know that at least two main members of his own team have skeletons in their cupboards, and one of them will not hesitate to kill, to keep his name clear. Moreover, there three other players in the game whose roles will impact his investigations: a mahant (priest) with political ambition, feigning fraternal ties with the lower castes, an intellectually gifted dalit underground leader, and his spunky beloved. All Ayaan now needs is the forensic report confirming that the girls had been gang-raped, and he will match the DNA found on their bodies with that of the suspects. But, like everything and everybody, the report can be manipulated as well.

Written by Gaurav Solanki (an Indian Institute of Technology graduate who was hitherto known as a lyricist) and Anubhav Sinha (who has directed and co-produced the film), Article 15 leaves us wondering how much of its narrative is gathered from the real-life incidents and how much is added as fiction. But to their credit, the unfolding of the saga is largely credible and logical. Two or three things appear patchy, though. The entire track of the video calls between the protagonist and his wife seem to have been added on, as, indeed, seems to be the case with creating both their characters, who are needed as pegs to hang the story on.

In a locality where the gun talks, the police officer does not fire a single shot, nor does he get into any scrap. As part of his efforts to nail the suspects, he assures the key personnel that they should do their duty, and that no harm shall befall them. In practice, he does nothing whatsoever to make any arrangements for their protection. In fact, when his cook is not to be seen in his house for some time, he panics and runs out to find her. At the same time, he hurls instructions at the few men he trusts, without doing anything to determine whether they are trustworthy. He also betrays ignorance about the facilities and amenities available in that remote area, though he would have had detailed briefing before being sent off.

Moreover, in the days of the Internet, when he has video conversations with his wife every day, it would have been very easy for him to find out everything about the village and its environs. A heart-to-heart conversation with his predecessor was a must before the outgoing ‘Additional’ handed over charge to his successor. That itself would have led to some reflection and investigation about the circumstances under which the police station operated, and the social prejudices and the crime scene that prevailed, even if the norm was to not record most crimes.

Director Anubhav Sinha (Tum Bin, Gulaab Gang, Mulk; engineer turned music video maker turned TV serial director, then assistant film director) addressed women empowerment issues in Gulab Gang, and Indian Islamophobia in Mulk. This time around, he focusses his gaze on the plight of the under-privileged, who, despite having quotas reserved for them in educational institutions and government jobs, continue to be identified only as pig-rearers, garbage pickers and gutter cleaners. In an interesting bit of deference, he dedicates the film to a bunch of contemporary Hindi film directors who he admires.

There are bits of brilliance in the script and mise-en-scène, like the search for the missing third victim and the jolting way in which a policeman redeems himself after admitting his guilt and complicity. But the search tends to drag on forever, and, at the end of it, the police party eating food cooked and handed over by a low caste old woman is clichéd and clap-trap. Just before the interval, Sinha decides to use the sledge-hammer to send home the message of Article 15, by going for a long prelude till the halfway mark break of the 130-minute film is announced on screen. Most characters are well delineated and turn-in commendable performances. One does, however, wish there was more of the dalit brainiac, Nishad, and his lady-love, Gaura. Of the two songs used in the film’s beginning and end, the first is a treat while the second is a compromise.

Following on the heels of the much-raved about Andhadhun, Article 15 will pull-in Ayushmann Khurrana fans like a magnet. Underplaying is not a prerequisite of a crusading police officer, so it does seem odd that, except for shouting out the f word twice, he shows no real signs of bravura. If this is what the director had in mind, the guilt does not lie with Khurrana, though. But he must work on his diction. As a theatre actor, MTV Roadies winner, TV and FM radio anchor and now film-star, he can hardly afford to gobble up a word or two in every sentence. That said, Ayushmann has an innate charm and looks that are, perhaps, at odds with a law-enforcing arm, like the police.

Isha Talwar (Hindi, Malayalam actress) as his wife Aditi, has too small a role to offer much comment. Sayani Gupta (Margarita with a Straw, Jolly LL.B. 2, Jagga Jasoos) as Gaura continues to amaze. No matter what age, no matter what milieu the character comes from, she just walks into the role like a dolphin diving into the sea. She sings too, and jolly well as well. Manoj Pahwa as Brahmadutt, the obese cop who believes in pandering to the rich and powerful, and looking down upon the ‘untouchables’ as the scum of the earth, delivers as he often does. Kumud Mishra as his colleague, Jatav, is less hackneyed and almost convincing, for once.

South Indian villain, Nassar (Roja, Vishwaroopam, Baahubali), plays CBI officer Panicker, though I cannot recall his name being mentioned in the film. I would be curious to know why the 60 year-old native Tamil-speaker was depicted as a Hindi fanatic, though, to his credit, he does a reasonable job with the language. Like always, he makes his presence felt. Ronjini Chakraborty does well as Dr. Malti Ram, who is assigned the duty of the performing the post mortem in the absence of her senior, who is down with malaria. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub (Shahid, Tanu Weds Manu 2, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi) as Nishad acts effortlessly and you wish he had more to do in the saga.

Ewan Mulligan’s cinematography is of standard gauge while editing by Yasha Ramchandan appears jerky at places, apparently a result of censor imposed cuts.

There is nothing new in the form of story or plot points, since the subjects of atrocities on under-

privileged, bad cops and the appearance of a messiah-like good cop arriving to try and clean-up the system, and political string-pulling to save criminals from the improperly so-called “long arms of the law,” have all been done to death, in India and abroad. Article 15 links these issues to the Constitution of India, as framed by a committee, under the chairmanship of Dr. Bhimrao ‘Babasaheb’ Ambedkar, and implemented from the 26th of January 1950. Ambedkar famously said, “...the last time when I spoke, I said that I wanted to burn the Constitution. Well, in a hurry I did not explain the reason. …The reason is this: We built a temple for god to come in and reside, but before the god could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple?”

Caste politics is a burning issue in India, one that has defied resolution for 68 years, and counting. One film is not going to change the ground reality in any way. Yet, Article 15 should be seen, and, if it sparks off debates, it would have more than served its purpose.

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://youtu.be/HKOJY0cU63E

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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