Article 15, Anubhav Sinha’s searing film about the indignities endorsed by the caste-system in modern day India, does not play it cool. Inspired by the real-life Badaun killings — and a stirring tribute to Alan Parker’s 1988 procedural thriller Mississippi Burning — this film features policemen hushing up the murder and gangrape of three 15-year-old girls because they belong to a lowered caste. Us, and Them. It is a grim, unrelenting and essential film, one throwing up truths we choose to forget. Khurrana is spot-on, consistently harrowed and, building on the everyman baggage of his earlier films, immensely relatable. He eschews showiness to stay true to the part, a protagonist who is aware he will be looked on as an upper-caste saviour, aware that it isn’t his role.
Article 15 is an angry film that shocks the audience, even when we think we know everything that is being presented to us. The film does not shy from displaying its sources of inspiration -- from the gripping HBO series True Detective to Alan Parker's Oscar winner Mississippi Burning. If fact, thematically Article 15 borrows more from Mississippi Burning -- two FBI agents in America's south exploring the disappearance of civil rights workers. The film is beautifully shot by Ewan Mulligan -- not just the morning scenes with fog emerging from behind the trees, but some very carefully plotted moments where the camera hovers around various characters picking up the tension that is building. Sharp editing, the background score and sound design give Article 15 that edge-of-a-seat quality often lacking in Hindi films.
Article 15 examines the caste composition of the police force itself in a manner that no Hindi film has ever done. Bollywood crime-busters have either been cynical vigilantes or sanctimonious police officers swearing unwavering allegiance to their uniform. In this film, the policeman's vardi, in more cases than not, does nothing to suppress the caste identity of the individual who dons it. The director wins half the battle by casting little-known actors with real faces who look and act like people you would meet in an upcountry village. Ayushmann Khurrana underplays his part to great effect, enhancing the intensity of the character. Article 15 also benefits from highly effective performances from a supporting cast that includes proven quantities like Nassar, Kumud Mishra, Sayani Gupta and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Article 15 is a not to be missed film.
Article 15 employs a similar ‘outsider’ trope to address caste discrimination through the lens of the (adapted) Badaun gangrape case. It cuts deeper and darker into Uttar Pradesh, a State (and a state) that best reflects the nation’s mass rhetoric. Only, unlike most socially charged dramas, this film is mature enough to recognize that “change” is merely a dramatic construct invented by the arts to bookend a narrative. And that the conclusion of a story, in happiness or sadness or redemption, isn’t the same as the conclusion of a problem.
In Article 15, Anubhav and co-writer Gaurav Solanki structure a social cause as a police procedural. In places though, the messaging seems to overwhelm the storytelling. The film is trying to make too many points and somewhere along the way, the various threads scatter. Much of the load is on Ayushmann who is well cast in the role of a decent man who becomes an alien in his own country. His anger and frustration has conviction – he is especially good in a scene in which he’s explaining to a CBI officer why it’s important do the right thing. But the film seems to stumble on his stardom.
The film is significant not only for what it’s saying, but also how it’s saying it. In one of the best scenes that’s played for laughs, Ayan asks his junior officers to reveal what caste they belong to, only to make the discovery that there is a hierarchy even within lower sub-castes. The filmmaking too is solid. Anubhav and his cinematographer Ewan Mulligan create a strong sense of foreboding that hangs over Lalgaon, as if darkness and violence looms at every corner. The film is relentless in its commitment to disturb the viewer. Corpses are filmed in uncomfortable close ups, tension is built through slow building background score, and the search for a third girl who’s missing but who might still be alive is all consuming. Article 15 isn’t just an important film, it's a powerful one and it’s superbly made. It comes at you all kicking and screaming, but this is a film that justifies its tone. Don’t miss it.