Agar sab barabar hojayenge, toh phir raja kaun banega? (If we all become equal, then who will be king?)” An innocuous question, casually said by a police officer, is perhaps the best way to describe Anubhav Sinha’s film Article 15. Inspired by the 2014 Badaun alleged gangrape case and the 2016 Una flogging incident, the film takes a hard look at caste and the politics surrounding it in India. It has all the ingredients of a good film, but unfortunately stops short of being a great one.
The aforementioned question, which effectively haunts you throughout the rest of the film, is said to Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), the top cop who is transferred to Lalgaon, a village in Uttar Pradesh, to work on a murder case.
Two young Dalit girls are found hanging from a tree — making for a hauntingly macabre shot by cinematographer Ewan Mulligan — and Ranjan is on the scene. He can tell it’s not suicide, it’s murder and there’s more to it than just the killing. The rest of the village, and his own team of local police officers, are hell-bent on believing otherwise — but everyone knows that the real motivation of the crime was caste.
Ranjan, an idealistic Delhi cop, is stuck trying to get justice for the victims, in a system bogged down by an entrenched caste and power structure. Ranjan’s righteous fight is fraught with obstacles, one of them being the CBI.
There are many moving parts in the fast-paced crime drama. The various police officers, who are eager to wrongly blame the fathers of the victims in order to close the case, the sister of a missing girl (Sayani Gupta) who wants to have her voice heard, and Ranjan, whose privileged and idealistic outlook comes crashing down as he faces the ground reality.
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Sadly, Article 15 ends up trying to tell too many stories at once, undercutting the main plot and leaving you a little underwhelmed.
What is commendable, however, is that director Anubhav Sinha does not try and solve the problem of caste, nor does he bring in the savarna-saviour complex into the narrative. Rather, the audience is continuously made aware of the fact that the protagonist is an upper-caste, upper-class man, who understands very little of what actually happens in his own country.
The theme of caste politics comes through unapologetically in every scene, which is more than what can be expected of any mainstream Bollywood film. But, even in doing that, the narrative ends up focusing more on Ranjan’s disillusionment and not enough on the people against whom these atrocities are committed. The sister of the missing girl, the fathers of the victims, the police officers, are all viewed in relation to the central character and not by themselves — in a movie about them.
Khurrana does well as a stoic, angry officer, whose ideals are tested every moment. He manages not to overshadow the story. Gupta, even in a minor role, shows she can deliver a raw performance. Manoj Pahwa shines through as a corrupt officer, making us wish we saw more of him. The writing and screenplay stand out, with carefully placed humour and hard-hitting one-liners.
Article 15, overall, will prick at you and make you suitably uncomfortable — as it should – but will probably not stay with you for long. Not because of a misplaced rap song at the end of it, but because it is a well-intentioned attempt at being what most Bollywood films claim to be — a mirror to society.
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