Article 15 joins a growing list of films that are armed with the persuasive power of movie and television and deal with events that are a part of our contemporary history. The title is taken from a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution and attempts to tell a story about India’s current sociopolitical situation. The film follows a police investigation that commences after three teenage Dalit girls go missing from a village.
While not based on one specific event, it is inspired by multiple true events, including the 2014 Badaun gang-rape case and the 2016 Una flogging incident. Besides adhering to the tenets of popular Hindi cinema, it also tells a truth, which is perhaps more poetic than literal. The film’s cinematic liberties change the tenor and the tone of its narrative when seen in the light of the events that serve as inspiration.
It nonetheless brings to fore the depiction of caste lines in popular Hindi films.Aristotle believed that poetic truth was superior to historical truth. Since its advent, cinema as a medium has been inspired by all forms of art. In its bid to overcome the commercial trappings in order to satisfy the inherent artistic urge, it has perfected the template to blend fact and fiction to arrive at what artists have called internal truth. For a filmmaker, such a truth facilitated by the medium itself, at times, is ‘more truthful’ than the truth itself.
It’s not like only films have been the beneficiary of such drastic and creative liberties, but the illusion of filming or photography makes all the difference. Richard Slotkin, a professor of history at Wesleyan University, feels that even if something did not happen, “movie photography gives you the illusion that it did”. Whether one likes it or not, when seen in the light of a filmmaker’s internal truth, the depiction of history through the camera’s lens holds great significance.
There is no denying that Dalits have been under-represented in mainstream Hindi films. Traditionally, films have had a limited view of Dalits despite the theme being frequented from Achhut Kanya (1936) to this year’s Article 15. As film scholar MK Raghavendra put it, to all appearances, the portrayal of Dalits has also been “theory down”, or in other words, victimhood made the essence of Dalit life. Raghavendra’s argument of unconvincing Dalit portrayal in films such Achhut Kanya (Devika Rani), Sujata (Nutan), Ankur (Shabana Azmi) and Aakrosh (Smita Patil) is a result of upper-class filmmakers making these films.
Does director Anubhav Sinha’s decision to make his leading man a Brahmin (portrayed by Ayushmann Khurranna) reinforce what it set out to critique: “The Brahmin will brutalise the Dalit, and also be the saviour?” The manner in which Article 15 articulates what the filmmaker believes to be a larger truth reflects the standard method used in the films. There is an effort to depict real-life events but interspersed with degrees of fictionalisation.
It brings to mind Roland Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy that told the story of the creation of the atomic bomb. Joffe saw the film’s history as a political lesson, and in turn, robbed the movie of some potentially high drama. Similarly, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning showed racism in the US with much realism but fictionalised the role of the FBI to create drama. When it comes to history in films, and especially Bollywood, truth is often found on the wrong side where it’s sacrificed for effect.