Social justice on screen

Caste on celluloid

Print edition : August 30, 2019

A still from “Article 15”. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Anubhav Sinha’s film Article 15 is a near-realistic portrayal of caste oppression in contemporary India.

FROM time to time, Indian cinema has experimented with the intransigent character of caste in society. While in the past some film-makers have depicted caste and land and feudal relations in their most brutal expressions through “socially meaningful” films, the contemporary depiction of caste relations and discrimination is unique for its attempt to portray the lived experiences of the socially marginalised, including caste conflicts and the concomitant assertion.

Anubhav Sinha’s most recent film, Article 15, is about the persistence of caste and the discrimination that is integral to its existence. The film courted controversy when certain organisations claiming to represent Brahmin interests protested against it on the grounds that it portrayed Brahmins in a negative light. A few critics panned the movie for being paternalistic and patronising. Sinha has otherwise charted an uncontroversial cinematic career and directed several commercial “hits”. Scripted by Sinha and Gaurav Solanki, Article 15 is interestingly titled, inspired as it is by Article 15 of the Constitution that prohibits the state (and persons) from discriminating on the grounds of caste, sex, race, religion or place of birth.

A young police officer is posted in a village somewhere in north India, and his first case involves locating three missing Dalit girls. The policemen, mostly upper caste, with one exception, are reluctant to look for the girls. In fact, no one is interested. When the bodies of two of the girls are discovered, there is an attempt to fudge the post-mortem report.

The film correlates the provisions in the Article vis-a-vis extreme forms of discrimination in society using cinematic imagery in the context of a brutal double murder that took place in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh in 2014. Two young girls, cousins belonging to the Other Backward Class community of Mauryas, were found hanging from a tree. Three persons belonging to the Yadav community, a dominant backward class group, were arrested for the murders. The Mauryas are numerically smaller than the Yadavs who are not only economically better off but also politically protected by virtue of their caste. The girls had allegedly been gang-raped and murdered, the police said on the basis of their initial investigation, the confessions of the accused and a post-mortem report (which was refuted later). The case was referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which ruled out rape. Various theories were mooted, including a property dispute, honour killing, and suicide because one of them was allegedly involved with one of the accused. In the end, the Badaun case never really got closure.

The plot of Article 15 is loosely based on the Badaun twin murders, but the film is much more than a murder mystery. Set in a village in north India, the film drives home the point that lower and backward castes are routinely ill-treated by upper-caste members and that caste biases are deep-rooted among investigating authorities such as the police. It reflects the despair of the poor and the lower castes and their lack of faith in the justice delivery system, while also highlighting the assertion by a section of educated Dalits and the crushing of that assertion by the use of rape and internal security laws and the subtle co-option of a section of Dalits in a political formation led by an upper-caste seer.

The film begins with the powerful lyrics “Kahab toh” sung by Sayani Gupta (who is also the main female lead), depicting the sharp contrast in the lives of the poor and the rich. A group of villagers huddled under a shack to escape the monsoon showers sing along with the young woman. Their caste identities are not revealed until much later through the protagonist, an upper-caste police officer with a public school education and a degree from St. Stephens.

‘Those people’

He is shocked at the apathy of his staff vis-a-vis the lower castes, and begins inquiring about their caste identities. He is first amused, then shocked and frustrated at the layers of hierarchy and the lens of caste through which his subordinates view each other as well as the murdered girls. The police officer’s subordinates constantly refer to Dalits as “those people” and refuse to take the complaint of the missing girls seriously, which, incidentally, was the case when the girls in Badaun went missing.

With righteous indignation, the police officer takes a printout of the clauses of Article 15 both in English and in Hindi and pastes them outside his office. It is not insignificant that there is a photograph of B.R. Ambedkar in the police officer’s room, a reminder of the Indian Constitution the officer is supposed to uphold at all times. The police officer is a Brahmin by caste, a fact revealed by his subordinate who tells him that he does not belong to the top-notch categories of Brahmins. To show that he does not have any caste hang-ups, he gets thoroughly involved in the search for the missing survivor, which includes wading through a swamp with his men in khaki, a scene reminiscent of the Hollywood thriller Mississippi Burning where a team of FBI officials search a swamp for the bodies of three civil rights activists presumed murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

At the heart of Article 15 are a police officer driven by a social conscience, a fiery Dalit leader who refuses to get co-opted and vows to take on the “feudals” and the reigning elite (he is booked under the National Security Act and killed in an encounter), the slogans of “Jai Bhim”, and a spirited Dalit woman who does not give up looking for her missing sister. The film captures the essence of some contemporary forms of social engineering, evidence of which was seen in the recent general election where a consolidation of votes took place in favour of an upper-caste party. There are a few scenes that show the deep nature of social and economic inequities that persist despite constitutional provisions such as that of Article 15. There are scenes resembling the Una flogging (in the film, three young Dalits are flogged publicly for entering a temple meant for upper castes), the sham exercise of political leaders eating at the homes of Dalits, and scenes of sewers being cleaned manually. The deliberate choice to show such imagery, some of which are disparate and do not flow with the plot—the flogging, for instance—does make the film stand apart. The manual cleaning of a clogged sewer by a man without any protection whatsoever is grim testimony to what actually happens even today. The central theme remains discrimination on the grounds of caste and gender and the various manifestations of the same.

A credible film

Article 15 may not be a perfect film. At some points it stretches needlessly—for instance, the long-distance back-and-forth between the main lead played by Ayushmann Khurrana and his partner, an activist-journalist who derides him for being insensitive and then makes a surprising appearance in the village to give him moral support. These inanities apart, much of the film appears credible, including a scene where an upper-caste policeman who is an accused hurls casteist abuses at his subordinate who retaliates by slapping him. There is a fleeting expression of regret on the face of the subordinate, which is open to much interpretation. Such nuances make the film interesting. There is also an interesting cameo by the veteran actor M. Nassar, who essays the role of a CBI officer who takes over the case and lectures Khurrana on the need to identify with local customs and the local language.

There have been many films that have dealt with caste oppression right from the inception of Indian cinema, and many of them are critically acclaimed. Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018) on the angst of the Indian Muslim, which was described as a political masterpiece by a critic; Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (2011), where the protagonist was a Dalit, essayed superbly by Saif Ali Khan; Nagraj Manjule’s critically acclaimed Marathi films Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016), both of which dealt with love that transgresses caste boundaries; and Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2018) are recent examples of films about the lives of the socially and economically marginalised as well as that of assertion and change.

The violent reaction to the assertion of basic rights, as seen in most of these films (in Article 15, the girls are killed for demanding a raise of Rs.3 in their daily wages) and the unequal system, with partial or full support from the tools of the state, are often responsible for people losing faith in the justice delivery system. The Rajnikanth-starrer Kaala directed by Pa. Ranjith also falls broadly in this category. The caste bias exhibited by the police towards those in the lower hierarchy in Article 15, where remarks such as “these people are like this only and need to be mindful of their place”, has some conceptual similarity with the 2019 Netflix docudrama When they see us, based on the 1989 sexual assault of a jogger in New York’s Central Park and the arrest of five innocent teenagers of colour and their conviction for a crime they had not committed.

Popular cinema is a powerful medium of communication, and even relatively smaller actors in films with a powerful storyline have been seen to reach out much more effectively to audiences than some of the biggest names in the industry. That Indian cinema is looking at “inequality”, even if through a commercial prism, is gratifying enough.

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