In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Sayani Gupta’s Gaura and Zeeshan Ayyub’s Nishad are sitting next to each other and he is crying, blurting out the things he has always wanted to do, but hasn’t been able to because he is a Dalit activist. He says he would have wanted to buy her flowers, and perhaps sit in one place for five minutes and look at the moon, observe its beauty. These are normal, everyday things for most of us, but for Nishad, it’s a farfetched dream, which he knows isn’t a possibility. Article 15 is mainly about this – about how the caste system divides us into segments, creating untouchability and compromising everyday lives of people who’ve been put into the margins, those who work at our homes, cook our meals but eat in different, separated plates.
The film’s narrative revolves around Ayaan (Ayushmann Khurrana), an IPS officer and his posting in a small village in Uttar Pradesh. He is a Delhi-ite, a St Stephens graduate, so he has a privileged air around him. Minutes into the film, we are shown that he is texting his girlfriend from an iPhone X and seconds later, he stops to buy water, but one of the constables tells him not to, because “yeh neechi jaat ke log hain Sir, hum inka paani nahi peete.” So now, our hero knows what he’s getting into. His first case is a brutal rape and murder case where two girls are left to hand from a tree, just because they are Dalits and asked for a wage raise. What follows is an investigative horror film. I say horror because we are living plush lives in our plush houses, eating food at least thrice a day, reading about atrocities against the Dalits on our smartphones and forgetting about them. And these atrocities are not limited; they’re many and in recurrence. What adds to the horrors is the cinematography by DOP Ewan Mulligan, who captures the happenings with a deep cinematic significance. Most of the events in the film are deprived of sunlight. Search operations, interrogations, even conversations are happening either before sunrise or after sunset. The police thana is dimly lit and so are the homes.
Article 15 talks loudly about untouchability and how the caste system, which is about 2000 years old, doesn’t deserve a place in our society, but it exists. It exists as an evil watchdog, reminding trespassers that they will be prosecuted. “These people” aren’t allowed to sit with Ayaan, they don’t drink water from a glass in front of him, most don’t even talk. So how is this man, who wants to “un-mess” it all, supposed to solve a heinous crime against the Untouchables?
Anubhav Sinha and co-writer Gaurav Solanki flesh out a narrative that is both meaty and intriguing. For the entire runtime, you don’t feel for a second that maybe this moment was unnecessary. Like in Mulk, Sinha masters storytelling. Each character has been given their space, each actor theirs. Even in a very small role, Isha Talwar is given all the space to shine and make it her own.
What drives Article 15, apart from the strong message and layered story telling are the performances and I don’t mean just Ayushmann Khurrana. Khurrana gives his career best performance in this film. He makes Ayaan what he is. He’s everything Ayaan demands him to be – vulnerable, strong, sensitive, hot headed, emotional, smart, and of course, good looking. In supporting roles Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa, as cops, are a treat to watch on screen, especially together. Pahwa gets some of the best scenes, and Mishra makes each of his so worthwhile. But the standout for me has to be Sayani Gupta. Gupta is given less dialogues – she plays a Dalit woman who isn’t typically allowed to speak in front of Brahmins. So, all the weight lies on her eyes and oh boy, she delivers and how! I would’ve really loved to know more about Gaura – where she comes from, what’s going on in her head and everything else, but maybe some other day, in some other film.
All in all, Article 15 is a film we truly need – to educate people about untouchability and to set a benchmark for Hindi cinema, in terms of narration and acting precisely.
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