In Article 15, a policeman (Ayushmann Khurrana) receives some case-cracking evidence on WhatsApp. “But lynchings and riots happen because of that app,” scoffs his boss dismissively. It's sensible advice — WhatsApp’s capacity for propagating fake news is known to all — but the idea that someone would use the same reasoning to obstruct justice is deliciously cynical.
Cynicism and hope strike a precarious balance in Mulk-director Anubhav Sinha’s new film. The procedural drama paints a grim picture of caste-based violence in rural India. It is steeped in the Brahmin saviour gaze — with Ayushmann’s smug IPS officer coming to a village and sticking it out for the Dalits.
There are several pacing and editing issues, and the oppressive colour-grade renders the countryside a bit too forcibly glum. What works though are the performances, from a committed Manoj Pahwa to an affecting Kumud Mishra. Also, Anubhav’s ability to weave plot progressions into the dialogue (a skill he showed in Mulk) saves the film from becoming insufferably long.
At first glance, officer Ayan Ranjan appears enough of a film buff to be taken seriously. He compares the lawlessness of UP to the ‘Wild West’, and describes his situation as being inside an 80s movie. Ayushmann looks stiff in the part, careful not to crease his pants or crack a smile.
Not that he has any reason to: three underage Dalit girls are reported missing on the night of his arrival; the next morning, two of them are found hanging from a tree, raped and killed. Ayan suspects caste prejudice from early on, despite repeated protests from the local coppers. “It's honour killing,” one concludes. “You will go away but we have to survive here,” pleads another. Their desperation to dissuade Ayan sounds rooted in genuine fear — what right does the city-bred official have to come and upset the jungle law? Why intervene when more damage is at stake?
Or so the writers want us to think. By evoking a sense of sympathy for the willfully blind, the film implicates the audience in the crime. As Ayan ploughs on, more unholy alliances come to the front. There's a stinging little scene where an upper caste leader, with cameras and saffron flags in tow, breaks bread with a Dalit chieftain (he’s brought along his own food and plates).
Cinematographer Ewan Mulligan loses himself in the misty roadways and exteriors. A search-party sequence has Ayushmann holding up his torchlight, creating lens flares straight out of a JJ Abrams movie. The background score is overstated and hacky, and encapsulates Abhinav’s preaching-beyond-the-choir grammar.
The supporting cast truly elevates this film, with a winning cameo by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. A composite of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and Rohith Vemula, Zeeshan endows this film with an incendiary grace. His voice — at once drifting and composed — flares through the screenplay and restores its pulse. It's a childish demand to make, but I hope the makers crack the idea of a spin-off based on him. I'll personally ensure the word reaches them to that end. Simmering within Article 15 is another, greater film.
Film: Article 15
Director: Anubhav Sinha
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Isha Talwar, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Rating: 3/5 stars