Heart of Darkness:
An IPS officer with a wardrobe of natty suits descends on Lalgarh in UP on a punishment posting, and gets a taste of what the real India is like in Anubhav Sinha’s right-out-of-the-headlines film, Article 15.
Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is incredibly naïve for this day and age, and is shocked that the caste system is so entrenched in the town, that his upper caste driver refuses to get off the car to buy a bottle of water in a lower caste area. Later he learns that there is an intricate hierarchy within the lower castes too (“WTF is going on!” he exclaims), but nobody in the Lalgarh police force is unduly bothered. As his deputy Brahmdutt (Manoj Pahwa—excellent as always) explains, there is a “santulan” (balance) in this society that should not be disturbed.
When two Dalit girls are found hanging (images like the Badaun case) and one is missing, Brahmdutt is in a hurry to close the case as honour killing. He refers to the Dalits as “yeh log” (these people), and a lower caste cop Jatav (Kumud Mishra) uses the same term. “Who are these people?” Ayaan wants to know, and when he starts to ask questions, he discovers how easy it is for a powerful politician and his businessman son to subvert the system. His activist girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar), whose part exists just to let Ayaan vent to someone like himself, calls the rural hinterland “Page 7,” and seems to be more amused that disturbed by Ayaan’s resolve to “unmess” things.
The girls were raped, tortured and hanged, because they asked for a measly three rupee raise. The autopsy report is fudged by the coroner, and the dead girls’ fathers arrested. But Ayaan is bent on investigating and tracing the missing girl. “You will get a transfer, but we will get murdered,” implores Brahmdutt, who expends more kindness on stray dogs than on “these people.”
Rather conveniently, in so many films dealing with a social calamity, an election is round the corner, and this one has Brahmin-Dalit unity as a plank; a saffron-clad Mahant eats at a Dalit’s home for photo-ops, but the media does not know that the food and utensils came from his home (also based on a true incident). An underground Dalit leader, Nishad (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub) fights for the cause by organizing a civic strike; in a telling scene, the even lower position of the Dalit woman is observed, when Nishad eats, and wipes his hands on his girlfriend Gaura’s (Sayani Gupta) dupatta.
Reminiscent of the films of Prakash Jha and Govind Nihalani, Article 15 may falter when trying to cram in too much into its running time, but it also captures the visuals and dialects, as well as the mindset of a small North Indian town with remarkable authenticity.
When Ayaan, with designer jacket on, steps into the muck, which till then, only the Dalits were doing, one wonders how the tenor of the film would have changed if Ayaan has been a Dalit too, instead of a Brahmin and whether it will end up preaching to the liberal.
Khurrana plays Ayaan with a mix of vulnerability and righteousness, looking sharp in his crisp uniform and gelled hair. Cops like him are mocked for thinking they are Ajay Devgan, and had it been this star in the film, he would have expected to sock a few villains. Ayaan has to face the sneering contempt of a CBI officer (a scene-stealing Nassar), sent to find a way of suspending him.
Whatever the minor quibbles, films like Article 15 and Sinha’s Mulk before it, bring out issues that should be highlighted more by mainstream cinema and force at least some in the audience to examine their biases. After all, it was in ‘cosmopolitan’ Mumbai that a young doctor, Payal Tadvi, was forced to commit suicide due to her colleagues’ caste-ist slurs.