‘Article 15’ review: Discrimination Highs

The first day at a new job can be unnerving, to the say the least. Eons ago, when I walked into a small office in Bombay’s Nariman Point—you’d be surprised how many decrepit work places existed underneath the façade of those tony towers—I had a sinking feeling about the gutkha-chewing manager and the rather nasty owner of a small business. I still get the shivers when I recall that first day.

Not anymore. Not after what IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) faces the first night of his welcoming party for his posting in Lalgaon, Uttar Pradesh. Three ‘of their’ girls have disappeared and the Lalgaon police station senior staff—Brahmadatt (Manoj Pahwa) and his subordinate Jatav (Kumud Mishra)—haven’t even bothered to file an FIR. Meanwhile, at the party, Ranjan bumps into his college mate and now an inebriated officer of the pollution control board, Satyendra Rai (a superb Aakash Dabhade), who seems to be ill at ease about something, and it’s most certainly not the quality of liquor or the latest wastewater COD and BOD readings. And oh yes, ‘those girls’ are from a lower caste, where it’s common for their children to disappear and then turn up a couple of days later, so why bother? But Ranjan—clearly a movie buff—he describing Lalgaon as something out of an 80s Hindi movie, and The Wild Wild West (I’d like to think he was referring to the TV show) to his wife Aditi (Isha Talwar)—isn’t impressed. He may not know it yet, but you do—thanks to Ewan Mulligan‘s gloomy, grey, chilling cinematography—that things aren’t what they seem in the boondocks.

Sushil Pandey, Ayushmann Khurrana, Ashish Verma: investigation’s nasty business.

Director Anubhav Sinha, co-writing with Gaurav Solanki, comes up with a tightly wound, whiplash of a social thriller in Article 15. Layering the flagrant misuse, abuse, and road-rolling of this section from the Indian Constitution with suspense and subtle humor, Sinha shows a sardonic side to his story-telling as well. It comes up in the dialogues—when he’s first being driven to the station upon his arrival, Ranjan’s driver, Chandrabhan (Shubrajyoti Bharat forming an effective, supportive layer in the background), tells him at a crossroad where the various roads lead to; with half-a-smile, he says, “To the left, it’s Kolkata.” The politics of caste and division comes up to the forefront later in the movie as well, as unholy (and unlikely) alliances  are formed to garner votes. Where elections are an exercise in psephology and caste arithmetic, with no algorithm devised to provide succor to the voters.

Manoj Pahwa and Khurrana stare at unimaginable horrors.

The movie’s structure and look is based on the gritty HBO procedural series, True Detective. (Which is why Anurag Saikia’s background score thrums with similarly powerful bass and growling pieces.) Basing itself on a true ghastly incident that occurred in Budaun, the motif of the crime, as in the TV show, is a tree; the tree’s also the center-radius, from where Ranjan slowly begins to piece the crime and the horrifying incidents that precede and succeed it. And as if to remind you of his movie’s raison d’être, Sinha uses the interval calling card to invoke the verbiage from Article 15. (No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition.) It’s a wee bit clever move, but effective, meant you to make you munch your samosas thoughtfully, and also focus your attention on the post-interval bit on how the blatant exploitation and subversion of lower caste citizens in this country is still a gutting reality; that even within castes, it’s us and them, our food and their food, our plates and their plates; that in no part of the exercise that you undertake to watch this movie—booking tickets, travelling to the cinema hall, buying snacks— will the amount of money that such people earn—or worse, the amount they ask as a raise—buy you anything at all.

The lower caste fabric is headlined by Sayani Gupta (playing Gaura) and Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub cameoing as an underground under-the-economic-belt leader.  While both actors are terrific, their subplot seems forced, especially when the latter cradles into the former’s arms, spelling out what sacrifice it’s taken for him to get where he is. Sometimes, it’s best to left things unsaid, like in the scene when Ayyub twirls his moustache.  

Khurrana gets a lesson or two from Kumud Mishra and others.

But there’s lots of disturbingly woven sub-plots elsewhere that make Article 15 a mustwatch. As Ranjan’s secretary, Ashish Verma is very good, while Nassar is superbly effective in his turn as the pension-focused CBI officer. But director Sinha reserves his best writing for three men, who also form the movie’s hard-to-get-away-from binders. The conflict between Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra—both of whom shone in Sinha’s earlier Mulk—is a highlight. And as the layers peel away, you realize it’s not just a plain superior-subordinate dynamic at play. There’s a scene where their argument explodes next to a jeep, both of them on opposing ends of the same survival, and Mishra turns towards the camera, while Pahwa looks away—the tension there’s marvelous and superbly polarized, but both know their necks are on the strained line. Pahwa gets in a snarling, desperate energy to his act; Mishra’s act is soft and subaltern, and yet powerfully affecting.

Nassar knows where his pension—and tension—is coming from.

Ayushmann Khurrana, slowly and surely emerging as the thinking audience’s actor, keeps his act tightly wound and in control. His histrionics aren’t in overarching action sequences or loud gestures. They’re in his ignoring a persistently vibrating cell phone in an interrogation scene; they’re in breaking a devastating piece of news to a girl who can’t yet comprehend the full import of the horror she’s just heard; they’re in his verbal jousts with his strained-by-distance-and-ideology wife. He’s a reflection of the horrors he encounters, staring at them with all the stiff-collar equanimity he can muster, but he’s also the IPS officer we hope will redeem us. (Notice how we place the responsibility of deliverance on others?)

Sinha delivers ironic justice in the movie, too. The cops need the lower caste folks to clean and wade through the poisonous sewage to solve the case; and folks like us are jolted into noticing their role only when they stop playing it. At the other end of governance, the finely divided caste and sub-caste discriminations cut across like coke-lines, giving their perpetuators and facilitators a perennial high. Like this year’s brilliant Sonchiriya earlier, Article 15 pulls no punches, but it isn’t as unforgiving as the former, though you wish it had been. The caste system structure may be, as that famous metaphor goes, a high rise structure without an elevator, so you’re stuck on the floor on which you were born. Article 15 may not be its cinematic elevator, but it sure as heck gets the attention of the residents living on the top floors.

Article 15 (2019) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Article 15 is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) There’s intense scenes, a dark theme, and mild profanity and violence.

Article 15
Director Anubhav Sinha Running Time 2h 10 min
Writers Anubhav Sinha, Gaurav Solanki
Stars Ayushmann Khurrana, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar
Genres  Crime, Drama, Thriller