This article is written by Priyamvada Singh, from School of Law, Galgotias University. Here, she reviews the 2019 Bollywood cinema Article 15 and delves into its legal aspects.
“Humein hero nahi chahiye, Bas aise log chahiye jo hero ka wait na karein”. (Trans: We don’t want a hero, we want people who don’t wait for heroes)
Every once in a while, Bollywood produces a film that makes everyone take a step back and rethink their perspective on society and its rules. After Bandit Queen, Aligarh, Masaan, and Pink, Article 15 is one such refreshment.
Whenever we talk about Casteism, a majority of the topic revolves around the idea of reservation. There are certain films made about the disadvantages of reservation: a popular one being Aarakshan. While the film was very nuanced and deserved the critical and commercial acclaim that it received, there is another narrative that sometimes goes amiss. The issue of casteism and Brahmanical supremacy. The film Article 15 attempts to bring to our notice the rude reality of the society we live in. A society which carefully overlooks the double standards and hypocrisy its members propagate.
Set against the backdrop of rural Uttar Pradesh, India- Article 15 looks at the gruesome reality of casteism and its ugly repercussions. The film is loosely based upon the Badayun rape allegations, which took the country by a storm. In this movie, two Dalit minors were brutally gang-raped and then hung from a tree in the same village they were from- for the world to see. This was allegedly done to instil fear in the hearts of those who belonged to the same caste as them.
The film starts with an IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmaan Khurrana) being introduced as a wet-behind-the-ears who quips to his wife, Aditi (Isha Talwar), that he finds the “countryside India” very beautiful. He is listening to Bob Dylan’s “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”, which sets us up for the challenges that he is going to face in the coming days. In the next scene, a group of Dalits (untouchables) sing a folk song “Kahab ta lag Jai dhak se…”(trans.: If I say it, you’ll find it offensive). The song is shocking in nature. The people question the lack of basic resources like water and electricity to them and the injustices that they face while the well-off people (the upper castes) enjoy the shower of luxury they call their lifestyle.
Just a few moments after he enters the village, he realises the problem of discrimination that he is going to face, however, the magnitude of it is still unbeknownst to him. In another scene, two girls are brutally gang-raped in a moving bus.
The film moves around the issue of the gangrape and how its roots lie deeply ingrained in Casteism and Brahmin Supremacy prevalent in the village.
The film touches upon many legal felonies arising out of untouchability, which is a legal offence in itself.
Article 15(1) of the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination amongst people on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth or any of them. Supplementing article 15 (1), Article 15(2) states that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to any public place merely based on religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Both the clauses together prohibit any discrimination of the aforementioned ground by both states [in article 15(1)] and private person or entities [in article 15 (2)].
There have been numerous news in the recent past about discrimination based on caste, especially in Uttar Pradesh- many even leading to the ultimate tragedy. When the water crisis struck the state, some people even denied access to water to the Dalits. In Bundelkhand, handpumps were forbidden to be used by Dalits, making the situation worse. The problem is so deeply rooted in society, that even children have succumbed to it. In Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur village, 70 out of 76 children refused mid-day meals because the food had been prepared by a person from a lower caste.
Indian Penal Code
The film also touches upon Section 376D of the Indian Penal Code (IPC): Gang Rape, and Section 300 of the IPC: Murder. These offences are often even not reported, primarily because the victims and their families are too afraid to report it, and even when they do, the law enforcement force shuts them down.
What works for the film
More than being just a mirror to the society’s condition, the film reaches beyond and accuses the audience to be a part of this exploitative tradition that we are all guilty of. Some of us partake in this tradition, some don’t raise voice against it, and some even refuse to acknowledge it. Caught in a whirlwind of local politics, and an absconding cop, a tradition that resorts to inhumane means to keep itself alive, and a daily lived reality of poverty and social vulnerability at the hands of the powerful- the film also showcases a list of women that are strong and brave when the men are floundering. Gaura- an ordinary girl whose eyes speak more than her mouth since her voice has been silenced a long time ago, Nishad- a youth leader who has to resort to fierce methods to be heard, Jatav- a policeman who has to face a lot of flak because he was a sweeper.
Each character is very nuanced. While the offences like murder and gang-rape are already deeply shocking in nature, they have been presented with an eerie flow to it too, so they hit deeper. Closeup shots of the hung body, with water dripping off of them. Rape culture permeating in the society is even brought to light in the film, as a policeman in the film says to Ayaan, “Arey Sahab ye log aise hi hote hai, khud sab karte hai- Phir rote hai”, meaning thereby that the girls had instigated the men. The film further investigates why radical revolutionists act the way they do, through Nishaad. He is part of a revolutionary group that resorts to fierce acts to be heard and to speed up the process of justice. Although looked at by law enforcement with an angry eye, the audience quickly goes on to love him- witnessing his situation and viewing the world through his glasses. The story also reveals how political parties selfishly use people like Nishaad to fulfil their conniving motives. At the end of the film, Nishaad’s fate comes to a tragic end as he is shot at point-blank range and the entire incident is shown to be an encounter.
What does not work
White Saviour complex
In the background, however, a different story seems to be taking place. As Huffington Post mentioned in their review of the film, “Article 15 is one Brahmin hero away from being a great film”. Teju Cole, the American-Nigerian writer had once noted how the American film & entertainment industry, better known as Hollywood suffers from what can be termed as “white saviour complex”. This is somewhat akin to what Rudyard Kipling explained as the “White Man’s Burden” during the colonial era. The theory proposes that the ‘white men’ are morally obligated to rule the ‘non-white’ people, so as to encourage their progress through colonialism. Such a philosophy seems to be coming from a good place. It, however, woefully ignores the real need of the people who are being ‘saved’. Despite all the right intentions, what is paramount is that the people who are being helped ought to be consulted about the help they are getting.
Article 15’s script suffers from this phenomenon as well. In the movie, the villain is a Brahmin, But so is the hero. He is an upper-caste policeman who only has a general understanding of the subtleties of caste politics. When he arrives in Laalgaon, he describes his posting as a punishment. Soon he finds himself stuck in the web of casteism and trying to find his way to get over it. In the end, he rescues the Dalit girl at great personal risk and we have seen him carrying the girl in his arms as the camera pans away. This scene was completely against the narrative the film has been building up since the beginning. Instead, the film ends up strengthening the argument that the lower caste must be both brutalised by, and rescued by the upper caste.
It could have easily been possible that the girl is rescued by someone who belonged to their own caste. It could have easily been possible that the rescued girl is carried in the arms of someone who has known her and has shared history with us. This would have not only made the climax more relatable to the audience but would have gone on to drive the message home that the supposed ‘lower caste’ is self-sufficient to take care of someone on their own. Instead, the movie falls into a classic trope of self-enlightenment which is deemed to be at the centre of any drama-based story. The movie focus on the protagonist becoming self-aware of his own responsibilities as the ASP and how his realization that caste-based discrimination is not something which can be ignored. Such self-awareness lies at the key of eradicating any kind of social issue plaguing modern society. However, this was not the core idea of what this film was trying to portray. By choosing to go with this ending, the film ends up falling on its own feet.
This take on the movie becomes much more interesting once we try to find the reason why this creative decision was taken. The lead actor in an interview stated that the movie exposed how privileged he himself was when it came to caste-related issues in India. That privilege was evident in the climax as well. He goes on to state that the film received a lot of flak from certain communities who raised objections to the fact that the film’s villain was a Brahmin. The fact that the film’s protagonist was also a brahmin was ignored. So one reason for making the protagonist an upper-caste was to neutralise the anger in order to facilitate the release of the movie. This fact alone speaks volumes of the social stigma which is present nowadays. The dearth of a Dalit protagonist in cinema is not a problem which is borne out of Article 15. Article 15 is merely an addition in the stockpile of films where even if the story is of a small-town, the protagonist has always belonged to an upper caste. A study by the newspaper The Hindu into Dalit representation in Hindi Cinema revealed that between the years 2013-15, out of about 300 films only 5 had Dalit heroes or heroines in them. Similarly, another report published by Birmingham City University in 2017 pointed out that despite having 85% share in India’s population, the Dalit representation in Hindi film industry stands at a meek 0.1%. Reservation and quote-system might have allowed Dalit representation in government sectors to a certain extent. But the same is painfully non-existent in the arts and cinema sector. One can also say that such artistic space is “untouched” by Dalit issues, narratives or protagonists.
Even when the film-makers have tried to tackle the issue through a few Dalit-centric movies, they are overshadowed by some other fringe issues which divert our attention. Mostly, this has been the case since the very beginning. First such issue to tackle the caste-issue was made in the movie “Achhut Kanya” (1936). But the movie framed the issue within the story of two star-crossed lovers in a typical Romeo and Juliet fashion. This undid the entire effort to raise the caste issue in the myriad of gossip and intolerance of families. Another such important movie to highlight caste and gender-based discrimination was “Bandit Queen”. However, it was met with strong criticism by the Booker Prize winner author Arundhati Roy on the ground of the way sexual abuse being shown in the movie against the protagonist. The issue then deviated to political correctness in the representation of women in movies rather than atrocities against the lower-caste women in society. The same problem plagues the now legendary film Lagaan, where the discourse shifted from the oppression of the poor to an asinine cricket match.
One reason to justify such absence can be that moviegoers are not quite interested in such movies and such movies do not have the mainstream appeal as other movies which feature ‘normal’ upper-caste characters. As the Masaan filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan puts it “Cinema is an escapist, aspirational, larger-than-life world. In that sense, it is too Brahminical in its ethos to give good space to caste narratives.” This argument holds some ground when we consider the number of screenings and support such movies get from masses. Mostly, such movies are rejected for mass release after being cited as ‘fodder for film festivals’. Recent examples of Newton and Masaan only go on to support the argument. However, these movies themselves break this stereotype. There has been a rise of Dalit narrative-based movies across Hindi and regional film industries and people seem to be loving them. These include Chauranga (2014), Court (2014), Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghore Da Daan (Punjabi, 2011), and Jayan Cherian’s English-Malayalam film Papilio Buddha (2013). The amount of praise and love these movies have received from the moviegoers only goes on to state that such movies can have the same mass appeal which other mainstream movies have. What only lacks is the imagination to make these Dalit characters appealable to the masses.
For that, it is required for the film-makers to come down from the position of privilege and welcome the entry of lower-caste filmmakers, technicians, actors, actresses and characters to enter the creative space. Then only a much more inclusive caste-balanced storytelling will be possible. There have been instances in past when Dalit filmmakers have got the chance to tell their own story to have it has come to be a heart-wrenching tale of social deprivation, isolation and other caste-related issues on the film screen. They bring about a perspective which cannot possibly be imagined from the perspective of a privileged position as the entire cast and crew of Article 15 has been. This difference is easily discernible if we look at the movies Sairat and Dhadak. Sairat, directed by Nagraj Manjule, a Dalit filmmaker was praised for its narrative devices and for showing the daily life struggle of a lower-caste couple in the backdrop of honour killings. However, the remake of the same movie did not receive the praise for its choice of narrative devices as adopted by its director Shashank Khaitan, an upper-class filmmaker.
It is pertinent that such storytellers be included in the mainstream conversation; storytellers who are capable of telling us how big the issue is, so we can gauze its enormity. As of now, it is needed that such storytellers be included in the process of creative decision making. It is needed that more Dalits are included in the arts and cinema industry. And it is needed that they are asked about the issues which plague them. Unless that does not happen, we shall never be able to see the issue of caste discrimination from the perspective of those who are affected by it the most. Unless we are not able to see it, we shall not be able to understand it fully. And unless we are not able to understand it fully, we shall never be able to work on it effectively.
Over the course of seven decades of independence, we have seen the lower caste being reduced to nothing but voting banks which are remembered merely during the time of election and forgotten till eternity.
Article 15 is a movie that makes you re-shift and refocus on our perspective of what is important. In a world where the media is busy with hate propaganda, followed by more hate propaganda, and cheap entertainment news, followed by more cheap entertainment news to keep us busy in unimportant matters, the film comes as a breath of fresh air. For some of us, it might be the rudest reality check of recent times. The ending of the film brings us face to face with what we try to remain woefully unaware of: that the system of supremacy is built on blood, sweat, and tears of the exploited. And that it continues to this date.
However, a little critical look at the film also reveals all the dark corners it contains within itself. The film fails to drive its point home by making the film about the character enlightenment of an upper-class protagonist. Claims can be made about the film suffering from the Brahmin saviour complex or that it subdues the struggles of lower caste by keeping the focus on the upper-class protagonist’s encounter with the caste system. This only goes on to highlight a bigger issue of the lack of Dalit representation in the arts and cinema industry. All of which are very prominent and relevant issues to be worked upon.
All in all, the movie reminds us that people from lower caste are not some expendable creatures made solely for the purpose of enabling comforts of the upper-caste. They are as human and humans deserve to be treated likewise. What this movie does beautifully is to divert our attention to a very relevant problem in a very hard-hitting manner. When the film ends, we do not feel comfortable. We feel a part of an issue which we have all unwittingly been a part of. The film, through its protagonist, makes us realise our own ignorance. It makes us think on a personal level as to what can be done with this. For the issue is not with Article 15 of the Constitution of India. The problem is with the implementation of it. It makes us wonder what can be done by us in this. For that, the movie should be praised.
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