Within just a day of its release Thursday evening, the trailer of Bollywood movie Article 15, directed by Anubhav Sinha, was watched by more than 8 million viewers on YouTube. Critics were quick to hail it as a film ‘exposing the horrors of caste prejudice’ and ‘uncloaking the reality of India’s caste system’. Some said the movie ‘takes on caste discrimination’ and gives a voice to ‘those suffocated as a result of the social discrimination so prevalent in the rural parts of the country’, and called it a ‘must-watch’.
Yes, confronting the issue of caste is in itself a revolutionary act in India. For accepting the existence of caste, raising the issue of caste atrocity and making a movie on this subject, Anubhav Sinha must be applauded. Because, after all, you cannot have real political and economic reforms in India unless you kill the “monster” of the caste system. (B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 1936).
To see ‘the monster’ is important, but for any artwork, book, movie or TV serial to be hailed as anti-caste, it must not perpetuate and reproduce the same stereotypes that actually sustain the caste system in the Indian democracy.
If you are truly an anti-caste woke, here are six things to be mindful of when you watch this movie, which releases 28 June.
1. The lead character of the movie, a Brahmin male IPS officer, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, is the saviour who fights the caste atrocity, on behalf of the Dalits. The Dalits, who have been waging a relentless struggle against caste system for ages with their sweat and blood, have no agency in the movie. They are the subject matter, not the actors. They need to be saved, and that too by a Brahmin male who, according to B.R. Ambedkar in a paper submitted at the Columbia University’s anthropology seminar, is the creator of the caste system. It’s like the vintage Mohammed Rafi and Geeta Dutt song (1956) – Tumhi ne dard diya hai, tumhi dawa dena (you have caused me pain, you must provide me the cure).
2. This movie is likely to, once again, subtly convey to us that caste is a rural thing, absolving urban audiences of any wrongdoing. The likely message is: it’s the uneducated, boorish, poor people who practice caste.
3. In this movie, the lead character is casteless or caste-blind although he comes from a Brahmin family. He can effortlessly ask his subordinates MAIN KIS JAAT KA HOON (Which caste do I belong to?) as if he is unaware of the privileges he has got simply because he was born a Brahmin. The Jatav constable knows that he is a Jatav, the Kayastha policeman knows that he is a Kayastha, but the Brahmin officer does not know his caste. He is above caste because ‘others’ are from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward castes. To be casteless or caste-blind is a privilege that only upper caste can enjoy. Because caste is not a problem, rather a privilege for them; they can easily ignore its existence and still benefit from the social and cultural capital associated with it.
4. This movie ignores the fact that caste has changed its location and now resides in top universities, as in the case of Rohith Vemula. It resides in medical colleges, as seen in the case of Payal Tadvi and the persecution of Dalit students in AIIMS . It resides in the higher courts where judges from lower castes are missing. Lower castes continue to lack adequate representation in power centres, be it in bureaucracy, in government or in national media.
In rural India, caste manifests itself in a crude form and is easier to identify and fight, but in an urban setting, it appears in a less-obvious but equally potent form. Many urban upper caste Indians encounter caste in the context of reservation in government jobs and education and in the assertion of lower castes in politics. For them, if reservation goes and lower caste-dominated political parties wither away, the menace of caste will magically vanish.
5. The movie equates Harijan with Bahujan – two different identities of Dalits – and rejects both. The opening dialogue of the trailer is – ‘Kabhi hum harijan bane, kabhi bahujan, kabhi jan nahin ban sake (sometimes we have become Harijan, sometimes Bahujan, but never citizens)’. Bahujan is an assertive and powerful identity associated with the movement started by Kanshiram, and it envisages making Dalits, OBCs and other minorities the rulers of this country. It was the idea of Bahujan that heralded the Silent Revolution, which changed the political landscape of UP and Bihar in the 1990s. To equate Bahujan with Harijan is a facile and deliberately simplistic reading of Indian society and politics.
6. The movie Article 15, it appears, is a unitary reading of the Constitution as it only focuses on Clause 1 of the Article. This provision states – ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.’ For a complete reading of Article 15, one must also go through Clauses 3 and 4. Clause 3 states ‘nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children’. And Clause 4 says ‘nothing in this article or in clause (2) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes’. Equality before law and special provisions for the disadvantaged sections are two constitutional concepts that should be read simultaneously.
In a nutshell, Article 15 appears to be a movie made by an upper caste filmmaker for the upper caste audience. It is comforting to see an upper caste male act as a saviour liberating the Dalits. It cleverly camouflages the fact that caste is a creation of the upper castes and they continue to enjoy the many privileges associated with it. It is the upper caste privilege that allows one of them to make a film on caste and enlist big Bollywood actors for it.
This privilege helps them overlook the fact that their ancestors created one of the most discriminatory social systems in the world. And, they continue to benefit from this entrenched system, knowingly or unknowingly.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.