‘This is war,’ proclaims Ayaan Ranjan, the protagonist of Bollywood film Article 15 (2019), ‘but everyone who lives here thinks it’s happening somewhere else.’ The ‘war’ here is the Hindu caste system, and how it continues to perpetuate its brutality through contemporary India. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian constitution, which sets out that ‘the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of race, religion, caste, sex and place of birth.’ The film takes us to the fictional town of Lalgaon, close to the city Ayodhya – where the Babri Masjid (mosque) was infamously destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992 – in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Ranjan is a new addition to the landscape: urban, upper-caste and educated abroad. He has just been appointed as a police superintendent and is squeamish in his new surroundings. He requires constant chaperoning and is oblivious to caste politics. One could take Ranjan’s naivety as a reflection of the audience’s own: a kind of Brechtian turning of the spotlight back to the film’s upper-caste, urban audience, and the way in which we are all complicit in the incidents of violence that take place on screen.
The film’s central plot is based on Uttar Pradesh’s 2014 Badaun gang-rape and murder allegations: the death of two lower caste teenage girls. The girls went missing on 26 May 2014. When the families tried to file missing persons reports, the police allegedly refused to comply. The day after, villagers found the girls hanging from the branches of a mango tree. Initial postmortem reports showed that both girls were gang-raped two days prior to their deaths. Protests ensued: villagers demanded the suspension of the police officers on duty, but water cannons were used to dispel them. By 31 May, five had been arrested on charges of rape and murder – two were policemen. The Central Bureau of Investigation was called in, who filed a report stating that the girls had committed suicide. Regional police disputed the claim, saying that they were honour killings instead. The case, and the resulting back and forth, brought to light the faulty mechanisms of a corrupt judicial system, and importantly, one that is still invested in the caste system. And while the series of events are gruesome, they are not exceptional – this is not a rare occurrence in India.
The plot of the film follows this chronology. It’s ‘like the wild west out here,’ says Ranjan to his girlfriend, the fair-skinned activist and journalist Aditi. In Aditi, Ranjan finds his conscience – she pushes him to dig deeper, fight harder, to be a ‘hero’. The film regurgitates an old Bollywood trope of the upper-caste ‘Brahmin saviour’, and it slowly becomes clear that Ranjan’s naivety is also that of the film’s makers. There is little room in this kind of Brahmin saviour narrative for nuance in the portrayal of place or people. Its Dalit (India’s lowest caste) characters are rarely given complex inner lives, and exist only to substantiate the moves of the film’s upper-caste players. In Article 15, the complex violence of Uttar Pradesh is bleached out by a two-dimensional plot line, and most Dalit characters in the film are treated as a kind of background noise: they are Ranjan’s domestic staff and police constables. They are subservient to him, answer his questions about caste, and generally help him along the way to righteousness. In a closing scene, Ranjan is carrying an injured Dalit girl in his arms, treading through the swamp, while the cast rushes behind him with praise. The only Dalit actor in the film is a sanitation worker who is shown – in extended slow motion – plunging into an open sewer without any protective equipment (a familiar sight in India), lowered in with a rope and a bucket. This is a bizarre representational choice, which is less about Dalit agency, and more about forced pathos.
One of the only compelling characters in the film is Nishad, a leader and guerrilla activist loosely based on Dalit revolutionary Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, co-founder of the Bhim Army, a peaceful organization which seeks Dalit emancipation through education. Nishad and his comrade are shot on the streets by a mob – in an echo of the ‘encounter killings’ so prevalent in the subcontinent (the elaborate set-up of a deserted rural road, upturned motorcycles, multiple bullet wounds – and of course, no suspects). While driven to his death, Nishad quotes from a suicide note by Rohith Vemula, a Dalit writer and student who committed suicide in 2016 after being violently bullied at his university: ‘I always wanted to be a writer […] but my birth was a fatal accident.’
The film made the equivalent of nearly GBP£6 million in its first 12 days in the box office. Both the director, Anubhav Sinha, and the film’s lead actor, Ayushmann Khurrana, are mainstream Bollywood stars. While the film may bring issues of caste-based violence to the mainstream, it desperately lacks the nuance that is so urgently required by our contemporary political moment: where caste-based violence fills everyday life, but rarely makes it to the front-page news. The film only attempts a much-needed critique – and yet does so with some risk, given the results of India’s recent general election, which strengthened the Hindu right and its censoring, angry mobs. On the second day of Article 15’s release, an angry group of Brahmin protestors fled into a multiplex in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, tearing down the film’s posters and putting an end to all subsequent screenings there.
India is undergoing a period of intensifying censorship (either by the state, or worse still, by violent mobs). When Dalit filmmakers have been outspoken, they have been rebuked by the state, like Tamil Pa Ranjith – whose 2016 Kabali took us to the lives of Malaysian Tamils, and Kaala (2018) to Dharavi, Mumbai, where Dalit residents fight for their land rights. In June this year, a case was filed against Ranjith for ‘promoting enmity between groups’ and ‘giving provocation with the intent to cause riot’. Ranjith publicly made comments that were critical of medieval Cholan emperor Rajaraja I, stating that caste oppression began with his rule, as did the bondage of women to sex work under the devadasi system. Ranjith’s retelling of history reminds us of how forgotten Dalit narratives contest the state’s regime of a mainstream Hindu-centric rhetoric – and his treatment shows how little room there is for different stories to reach the mainstream.
As Article 15 reaches its finale, Ranjan declares that ‘We will have to find new words,’ in negotiating caste-based violence. This quest for a new language is a useful one: but a promise the film is unable to deliver. It is openly critical of the caste system, but it does so by continuing to drive Dalit characters into the background. In the films that have come before it, caste is rarely explicitly handled (most notably, in Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2001 Lagaan, which was nominated for an Oscar). More successful films take inter-caste marriage as their focus, and this is significant: desire carries an important anti-caste politics. Dalit filmmaker Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi-language film Sairat (2016) was a heartbreaking but tenderly made teenage love story, which in its mainstream Bollywood remake Dhadak (2018) lost all the nuance of its caste politics (the story was instead turned into the simple cliché of poor boy meets rich girl).
Regional language films are often more compelling, and Pa Ranjith’s Kaala is a striking example: Dharavi – Asia’s largest slum and home to over a million people – is portrayed as the rich cultural and political space that it is, and as the very centre of the city, rather than as its economic or social periphery. In Kaala, Ranjith nods in the direction of B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader and revolutionary who was instrumental in writing the Indian Constitution, and its Article 15. To Ambedkar, social mobility was important, as was education, land rights and access to state infrastructure. The city, with its hybridity and relative liberalism, provides opportunities to achieve this, and Ambedkar was optimistic about it as a site for anti-caste political claims.
Dalit stories need to be told with a layered complexity, and with a deep understanding of regional politics. Article 15, like the few films that have come before it, is unable to do this, a fact made worse by the way the film is shot: with a thick colour gradation that renders everything misty and opaque, reminiscent of the first season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective (2014), as though we could be anywhere in the world. This failure calls back to a sentiment expressed by Vemula in his suicide note: ‘Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art.’