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With Article 15, Bollywood, finally, sheds its caste blind spot

It is the bravest mainstream film of the decade, placing caste at the centre of power relations

analysis Updated: Jul 08, 2019 19:49 IST
Swara Bhasker
Swara Bhasker
Article 15
Perhaps the film’s biggest success is that it has been able to weave in and represent almost all the major ideological viewpoints

Mainstream Bombay cinema (Bollywood) has had a controversial last few years in its relationship with Indian politics and society. We have been criticised for our collective silence on the stinging social issues of our time, or we have been called out for celebrating regressive aspects of Indian traditions and practices, and legitimising problematic violence. A pretty long way to have come from the Bollywood of Majrooh Sultanpuri, who spent time in jail, because he refused to apologise for a nazm critiquing the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It is worth noting that Majrooh’s Bollywood career did not bear the brunt of his run-in with the government.

But last week, from this seemingly spineless Bollywood, came a surprisingly brave and unblinking film. With Article 15, mainstream Bollywood has finally let go of its caste blind spot. Article 15 is not the first Hindi film, and certainly not the first Indian film, to have dealt with the issue and the experienced reality of caste in India. In no particular order, we have had Aakrosh, Sadgati and Damul (Hindi), Samskaara and ChomanaDudi (Kannada), Fandry and Sairat (Marathi); among many more that I must admit I have not watched. Largely, however, these films have remained within the New Wave and Art House categorisations of cinema and, barring Sairat, are not remembered for competitive box office performances.

And so I say, Article 15 is the bravest mainstream Bollywood film of the decade.

Inspired closely by the gruesome Badaun rape case of 2014, Article 15 is the story of how a privileged, clueless, newly appointed, upright cop discovers the sinister depths at which caste discrimination operates in India. Unlike Masaan, which was a more internal and psychological look at caste, Article 15 places caste front and centre as it explores power equations in social relations.

The film has been criticised by opposing ideological groups, accused both of being anti-Brahmin, and also for not being radical enough and valourising the “Brahmin Saviour”. To me, the film succeeds because, in fact, it does neither. Writers Anubhav Sinha (also the director) and Gaurav Solanki use the Brahmin protagonist Ayaan Ranjan’s elite education, urban background, international travels, upper middle class status and his Savarna identity to demonstrate how privileged, well-intentioned, do gooders can quite easily spend their entire life growing up in metropolitan India and never experience the caste system. Being ignorant of caste in modern India was itself a privilege only the Savarna could claim. In some senses, we, the audience, are Ayaan Ranjan, discovering, along with him, the reality of caste discrimination in India.

Perhaps the film’s biggest success is that it has been able to weave in and represent almost all the major ideological viewpoints and small details of power play in the daily business of living within an unequal social structure. Sub-inspector Jatav (a Dalit) carries his caste identity into the ranks of the police force, and remains beholden to circle officer Brahmdutt Singh (a Thakur), who threatens the Dalit medical examiner, Maalti Ram, with death and disappearance, and then in the next instance feels like a victim and complains about the nexus of the “quotey ke victim aur quotey ke doctor... (jinhey) daactari hum padhaatey hain apney tax ke paison sey (Victim is from the quota community, doctor is a quota entrant... and we teach them to be doctors on our taxpayers’ money).”

The film also manages to touch upon a number of recent controversial incidents, in a manner that even naysayers and what-abouters will not be able to whitewash. The gangrape in the bus brings back December 16 incident; the public floggings of Dalit men tied to a jeep remind us of the Una lynchings; the character of Nishaad and his Bhim Sena charged with the National Security Act rings close to Chandrashekhar Ravan and the Bhim Army; Nishaad’s last voice over echoes Rohith Vemula’s suicide note; the Hindutva-spewing saffron-clad Mahant visiting Dalit houses but eating food cooked by his cooks could be so many of our mainstream politicians; the co-option of Dalits into the larger Hindu fold echoes a key reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s success in the Hindi belt.

At a time when Bollywood has discovered the ‘safety in silence’ formula, it is almost unbelievable that a commercial film, starring the industry’s newest Rs 100-crore male star (Ayushmann Khurrana), backed by a mainstream studio, could so unequivocally offer a critique of not just the social structure but also the concept of neutrality that allows powerful perpetrators off the hook.

Article 15 scores as a work of art too. By invoking both Bob Dylan and the revolutionary Punjabi poet Paash, it reminds the largely urban audience that it is not enough to hum the songs of the greats to ourselves in our ear pods but turn a blind eye to the violence and injustice we see around us daily.

By equating the sacrifice of our soldiers on the border with the manual scavengers who die cleaning our sewers, it reminds us of how the discourse of nationalism is being hijacked and perverted in television studios. By visually using filth as a metaphor, and ceaselessly weaving it into the very mis-en-scene of the film — whether it is the overflowing gutter outside the police station; the filth outside the Dalit village; the dead animals shed; or the very impactful shot of a man descending the sewers and physically lifting out filth as the background score plays the last notes of Vande Mataram — the film topples our very notions of purity and pollution. It makes us realise on whom our own personal hygienic lifestyle depends, and who really toils and carries the burden of Swachh Bharat.

In mounting the Dalit protagonist, Nishaad, as a voice of the voiceless, and an ethical and responsible revolutionary, the film props up, perhaps, the first Dalit heroic figure of mainstream commercial Bollywood. Nishaad almost becomes the elusive hero the Brahmin protagonist Ayaan is aspiring to be. But perhaps Article 15’s crowning moment is the interval shot where Ayaan brings a print out of the first two clauses of Article 15 of the Constitution of India and pins it on the thana notice board for his team and for us, the audience, to read.

Article 15 gives me hope in mainstream commercial Bollywood. And not just because it has raked in Rs 45 crore in 10 days and is on its way to becoming a legitimate box office hit. It is a heartening reminder that every now and then, from commercial Bollywood, comes art that engages with the social reality of its time; art that goes beyond ‘Entertainment Entertainment, Entertainment’ and harnesses the potential to transform; and that, for, every Kabir Singh, there is also an Article 15.

Swara Bhasker is an award-winning Bollywood actor

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 08, 2019 19:49 IST