Article 15 and its savarna saviours
The film is about a police office whose world is turned upside down when he finds himself standing in front of a tree that has two girls’ dead bodies hanging from itUpdated: Jun 30, 2019 00:45 IST
Among the marvels hidden in YouTube is a video uploaded by the University of St Andrews. Filed under Education – naturally – it shows seal pups singing fragments of tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (once they’ve performed, they jump back into their pools like Greta Garbos of pinnipeds). It turns out that seals can mimic many of the complex sounds that make up human speech. Back in the 1970s, Boston’s New England Aquarium had a seal named Hoover who could say complete phrases like “hello there, how are you” and “get out of here”. While he did sound a little bit like a drunk heckler, there are few things more life-affirming than a seal sounding like a woozy old sailor.
“Such double standards,” someone wrote to me when I shared the audio of Hoover talking on social media. “If a man in a bar spoke to you like that, you’d get all offended. Just because it’s a seal, you think it’s cute.”
This, I must admit, is true. A slurred “how are you” from a seal that probably has no idea what it just ‘said’ – adorable. The same sentence spoken by a drunk man who knows what he’s saying, is seeing double, fuelled by alcohol and the need to objectify women? The opposite of adorable.
I found myself remembering Hoover the talking seal while watching Article 15, director Anubhav Sinha’s new film, which is well worth every paisa that multiplexes charge for their overpriced tickets and popcorn. Moodily shot and crackling with helpless anger, the film is about a police officer, Ayan Ranjan, whose world is turned upside down when he finds himself standing in front of a tree that has two girls’ dead bodies hanging from it. Ayushmann Khurrana delivers one of the strongest performances of his career so far as Ayan, who privileged bubble is burst when he’s posted to the fictitious village of Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh.
In Lalgaon, we see versions of real-life, caste-based crimes being carried out in quick succession. That this pile-up of atrocities doesn’t feel incredible shows just how much we’ve normalised caste-based prejudice. Sinha has done an excellent job of casting Article 15. Even minor characters, like Ayan’s personal secretary (played by Ashish Verma), look and feel authentic. However, it’s to Khurrana’s credit that he isn’t overshadowed by Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra and Sayani Gupta, all of whom shine in their supporting roles. Still, while listening to Khurrana deliver his fiery monologues, I couldn’t help wondering if to a Dalit viewer, his Ayan came across like the talking seal did to me – cute, but clueless.
At the start of Article 15, a disclaimer states that the characters in the film do not represent entire communities. This point is reiterated in the film, whose cup overfloweth with Brahmin and other savarna saviours who are not just horrified by the casteist members of their varna, but also have the strength of character to stand up to convention and conservatism. If this was anywhere close to the truth, the caste system wouldn’t have survived into the present.
Working as Sinha does in a film industry that strives to live in its own planet – remember how Dharma Productions completely ignored the caste angle when it remade Sairat into Dhadak? – the director deserves praise for telling stories that speak to the current socio-political climate in the country. There’s no mistaking the rage and frustration in Article 15, whose tagline nevertheless should have been #NotAllSavarnas since the focus of the film is on upper-caste guilt rather than the way society seeks to oppress Dalits.
It’s not as though Article 15 doesn’t have powerful Dalit characters. They just have very little agency in the film. Sinha is no Pa Ranjith, the Tamil director whose films like Kabali, Kaala and Pariyerum Perumal (which he produced) tell Dalit stories by placing Dalit characters and their experiences front and centre. In Article 15, for all its good intentions, Dalits are the victims whose only chance at being saved lies in savarna hands.
Article 15 is a film made by a privileged, upper-caste director for privileged, upper-caste audiences. To its credit, the film attacks this demographic, but not so savagely that we all feel complicit. It’s also aware that privilege can be a powerful weapon in the hands of an ally – which is perhaps why Ayan’s ultimate triumph isn’t that he fought for Dalits and against bad Brahmins, but that he knows the right (and good) savarna.
First Published: Jun 30, 2019 00:45 IST