As far back as I can remember, the first image that made me uncomfortable with discrimination in India was from the early 1970s, in my childhood.
In those days, there were no ceramic toilets with flushes where I lived. A woman would come and clean our toilets with a big broom and a bucket. Women in my household would then wash the path that she had taken in and out of the house.
I didn’t know back then if it was class discrimination or caste discrimination. Honestly, I still don’t know. I have a conspiracy theory that it is all about class discrimination, and that we found various names like caste and race to justify that divide. We want to be kings and queens, with a cheap, serving class at our disposal. Hence the dialogue in my film Article 15: “Agar sab barabar ho jaayenge toh raja kaun banega? (If we all become equal, who will be king?)”
There were two inspirations for Article 15: my own history, and several striking and disturbing images. Like that of a Syrian child in a red T-shirt washed ashore. He may not have anything to do directly with Article 15, but it still remains an inspiration. Wasn’t this world meant to be a place where we would happily co-exist? Wasn’t happiness the idea?
But then, what about the images of teenagers hanging from a tree in Badaun in 2014?
What disturbed me more in those images was the quiet faces of the people who looked on. Quiet, and at best, subtly anguished. This takes us to the monster of a problem called the sense of entitlement, or the lack of it. They were okay with the horrid crime, they accepted it. In fact, one of the fathers of the girls said in an interview: “Agar raat bhar rakh ke chhod dete toh bhi theek tha. (It would be alright even if they kept the girls all night and then left them.)” I used that line in the film. And then there was the video of those Dalit men being flogged in Una. People around them were filming it, not questioning it.
Somewhere among these memories and images lie the genesis of Article 15. Most of it is rooted in ANGER. The plot was just a tool. The anger was the reason.
When I started writing the film, my young colleagues thought caste was a thing of the past. I wanted to ask them if they were reading the newspapers. I got angrier. In January 2017, weeks before I wrote the first draft of Mulk, I wrote the first draft of a script called Kanpur Dehat over a weekend. The script kept haunting me while I made Mulk. I knew I needed to do more with that script, and for that, I needed to know more.
I could read books and meet people, but I knew I needed a collaborator to write this with. Then I met Gaurav Solanki, a published, awarded and an acclaimed writer. We hit it off in two meetings. Gaurav read the first draft and said, “We must make this”. And then we dived straight into it for a year.
Some 15 drafts went through our script consultant Anjum Rajabali. We knew we were on to something important, so, we went on relentlessly. We did not have an actor in mind. Then, Ayushmann Khurrana happened to hear about it and simply hijacked the script. Today, I am so happy he did. He was so convinced he wanted to tell this story that I bought into his conviction despite the fact that, I must confess, I did not see Ayan in him initially. But his belief in the subject matter would come through and it does so wonderfully. In hindsight, there could be no one better as Ayan.
The film is being loved and has set the box office ringing. That was a surprise. I knew that the film would be liked, especially by most critics, but I did not expect this kind of popular reaction. Ayushmann, however, believed that it will. The team is over the moon, thanks to the audience and to the critics. I am told our average star rating is 4.5.
There has been a lot of debate around the film. Some motivated and some organic. At my age, I can see through the motivated conversations and I know how to ignore it. But the organic ones are wonderful.
Did Ayan have to be upper caste? This is the most common question thrown at me. I don’t know. Maybe, he should have been a Dalit. It would have been a different film. Maybe, Nishad should have won. I don’t know. Maybe, the guy in the sewer did not have to be a real manual scavenger. I don’t know.
But you know what is the good news to come out of this film? Lakhs of people looked up Article 15 of the Constitution, and read it. Hundreds of you are asking these questions. That’s the reason why I made this film. I wanted my young colleagues to know this is not a thing of the past. I am happy youngsters are flocking to the theatres. They are the ones who will look for the right answers and create a new India. Until then, let there be a constant and urgent conversation.
Because a conversation was the core idea behind Article 15.
The author is a director, producer and writer. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.