Article 15: A Spectacle of Dalit Oppression
July 9, 2019
The Ayushmann Khurrana starrer Article 15 appears to have opened to thunderous applause. Bollywood’s derring-do in making a big budget film about caste is bringing in a steady stream of praise, not to mention, high box-office takings.
The film, set in Uttar Pradesh is supposedly based on the Badaun gang-rape and murder. Aesthetics is how the film lures its viewers: A pretty, light-skinned Brahmin boy(while dalit charecters are brown-faced), so earnest, so bewildered by caste hierarchy, who is as clueless as the research team for the movie is the hero and saviour. Khurrana’s character, Ayan is after all an IPS officer. One wonders how he even passed his UPSC exam without hearing about the caste phenomena that befuddles him for most of the film? But this pales in comparison to the other missteps.
As I watched the film amongst an audience who hooted, clapped and cheered, all I could feel was horror and disbelief. How could this pass muster with the audience? How could a sick exhibition of violence and brutality get mistaken for awareness? How can a movie on caste discrimination in which dalit bodies exist only as props to be raped, murdered, lynched, beaten and shredded with bullets be okay? Dalit characters bow and scrap. They clasp their hands in servile supplication, either begging for mercy or in gratitude. As if fetishised oppression is the only way to convince the savarna viewer about social justice, they are denied agency and assertion, they are denied their humanity. They are even mostly denied dialogues unless they are meek wide-eyed beseeching to the powerful.
The portrayal of dalit culture: protest songs, rallies and “Jai Bhims” betray a writer who has never heard and seen any of those. It dehumanises and humiliates the very people in whose favour the film has supposedly been made. Clothed as gritty cinema, it denies dignity. It is inebriated by its own righteousness. The sheer breadth of its ignorance, matched only by caste-blind entitlement, is stupefying.
How does this industry create the impression that it has dared to go into murky places that no one else has? How does Bollywood and its viewers exist even today, not knowing the fearlessness of many in “regional” cinema? Pa Ranjith, Leena Manimekalai, Amshan Kumar, Mari Selveraj – these are directors from just the Tamil film industry who deal with caste issues sensitively and powerfully. There are others in other Indian languages. How does Bollywood crudely play catch-up and yet convince a certain audience that it is leading from the front?
Article 15 is trapped between a rape and murder cop mystery and giving ham-fisted lessons in casteism. It chooses a macabre Nordic drama aesthetic with matching music and lighting, further distancing the atrocities from reality. The framing of the scene where two minor girls are found hanging by their necks from a tree as a restless fog swirls around them, while the music is adequately chilling, says that their deaths mean nothing without the cinematographic drama. It says simply that these deaths are worth less in their ability to move the viewer in comparison to what some good computer work could accomplish. Anubhav Sinha himself acknowledges this cinematographic style, reminiscent of the HBO series True Detective, but fails to recognise that as a problem. This, when the 2014 Badaun case led to immense trauma for the family and the CBI stalled the investigation. When the photograph of the two girls hanging from a mango tree was already hungrily consumed by media and viewers alike. Even without the cinematic drama, the photograph is shattering. It should never have been made public.
Characterisation too continues to be problematic throughout the film. The dalit constable in the station is the source of comedy, portrayed as dim-witted and ignorant but an essentially good soul. It recalled, forcefully, the racist "humour" of 30s American cinema that routinely used black-face or included black characters only for the jokes or as simpletons. The corrupt brahmin police officer played by Manoj Pahwa for all his casteism is so reduced by the villainy of his role, that he’s just a grunting, barely coherent creature filled with malice, spittle leaking, stomping about as he rages at subordinate officers. It’s hardly surprising that the audience clapped in unison when he is slapped dramatically by the constable. One wonders if the same people would be equally thrilled about a brahmin being slapped by a dalit man in real life. Not all caste oppressors look and act like cine-villains.
The dalit constable in the film was apparently played by a brahmin actor. The caricature version of someone modelled on who appears to be Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad was allegedly played by a baniya actor. But the role of a sanitation worker rising out of a septic tank, covered in black sewerage was reserved for a real life worker. The director has defended the scene saying the set had been created by the production designer and that the sewage was artificial.
In the scene, the man rises out of the sludge, black liquid waste clinging to him, and wipes his eyes. The music soars. Everyone is supposed to be obligingly moved. I just felt sick. Do we really need a suitable background score and a towering theatre screen to see the inhumanity in the jobs of sanitation workers? Are the deaths and the actual news not enough? Is the fact that it continues to exist not enough? If the movie is about oppression, what is the director saying if not that a flesh and blood dalit’s sole role in a film about his community is to clean fake sewers for an audience? Is that his “aukaat” — a word the movie throws around relentlessly? This is when I also have to point out that the film in setting the events in a village in UP, reitetrates the urban myth that caste is only a problem in rural India.
Of course, the legally aware viewer is wondering why the filmmaker has only just discovered Article 15 of the Constitution. Article 15 promises equality, but Article 17 of the same constitution specifically abolishes “untouchability”. Yet, these were not enough. The 1955 Untouchability Offences Act was amended in 1976 as the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act. This act continues to exist. That too was not enough. That is why we have the Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs Act (PoA), 1989, that was amended in 2018. An act that has been in the news only in the last couple of years for the several changes it went through. An act under which such a case as depicted in the movie would be registered, if only the savarna hero knew his pretend job.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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