'Article 15 is not the work of a hack, or of someone merely scooping a plot out of newspaper headlines.'
'It is a well-researched, clear-headed movie; but its findings have a purpose,' says Sreehari Nair.
Spot the Movie Genre is not a game I am good at; but I couldn't help play it this time.
In Article 15, Director Anubhav Sinha, regardless of his social endeavours, always keeps us aware of the firm cinematic tradition he is working out of. This is the classic Honest Cop Vs Evil Men story, flirted with, and made richly comic.
We know how things will turn out for rookie IPS Officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) posted in unmanageable Lalgaon. We can predict he would end up being frustrated with the brutality of the system, the reality of caste-based politics, and the hypocrisy of his own department.
What we are not ready for, what holds us in nervous imbalance throughout, is the amount of humour and the number of paradoxes that Anubhav Sinha introduces in this tale that we think we know backwards.
Being educated by those classic cop movies, we may be naturally driven to root for the innocence and purity of the protagonist. But here, Ayan Ranjan's virginal high-mindedness and his romanticizing of the pastoral life make him seem like the fool who has taken on more than he can chew.
Two young girls have been cruelly murdered in Ranjan's jurisdiction and a third one is missing; but back at his official quarters, there are plumbing problems to attend to, and a rickety fan that wouldn't stop eating into conversations.
It helps to have Ayushmann Khurrana take a whack at this stereotype: For Khurrana is someone who often imbues his roles with a sense of irony. His strength isn't 'immersing himself in a character' (At any rate, this kind of analysis is for critics who cannot get a phrase going, beyond the usual platitudes).
In his best performances, you can almost feel Ayushmann Khurrana smiling at the put-ons the script serves up for him; as though, he can smell the compromises -- and this puts us, the audience, on the spot: it makes us a pawn in his act.
Here, too, the actor doesn't disappear inside his khaki uniform and his too-sincere moustache. And this knowledge that we are being tricked -- and not the supposed 'actor's immersion' -- is what makes Ayan Ranjan likeable. (The simple idealism of the honest cop wouldn't work in 2019; but this slight fakery does).
As the film progresses, Ayan Ranjan discovers that the rot runs deep. But Anubhav Sinha rescues the metaphor from banality: He literally surrounds Ranjan and his police station with filth and garbage that must be cleared off before the search for allegories can begin.
The slowness and the amateurishness of the cleansing process, the many executive roadblocks, are also a big part of Ranjan and his team's search for the missing girl -- they become a part of Article 15's unique flavour.
The core narrative has a touch of hopelessness; but Anubhav Sinha gives his film all the wit and good spirits he can give it.
There is a great scene in which Ranjan's team of portly policemen talk about whom they'd voted for, in the last elections. And soon the discussion moves from the name of the candidates to their electoral symbols. 'I prefer Bridge. But since Bridge wasn't available, I voted for Bulb,' a cop, declares, unsarcastically.
Sinha is, at present, one of the country's top dialogue writers (I would put him in the same league as Syam Pushkaran and Vishal Bhardwaj); and his lines, their jokiness, give lie to the overarching subject matter -- for if we can joke about the hopelessness of the system, we can always endure it.
The dialogues are nifty, but the behavioural humour keeps breaking through, as well.
A high-ranking police official takes leave of a ceremony, and then waits for two seconds, for the subordinates to touch his feet.
Ayan Ranjan signs his suspension order, hands it to two junior officers, and waits for just that extra bit, so that the customary salute can arrive.
Sinha and his co-writer know how funny it is to watch bureaucracy follow its rituals, like clockwork, in the face of high emotional intensity. The writers sprinkle such patterns all through the narrative.
Then, there are the mirrors.
A Socialist (played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), muses about how his single-minded commitment to the revolution, had stopped him from giving his lover (played by Sayani Gupta), those moments they deserved together. A few scenes later, Ayan Ranjan apologises to his wife (Isha Talwar), for not being able to develop into the revolutionary that she wanted her lover boy to be.
This wistfulness that permeates Article 15 seems to be a part of its conception: It's as if Sinha had come up with the idea of film on the move, while revisiting a land from his childhood.
The visual tone of the movie, too, implies the 'act of looking back' -- the look of Article 15 is dreamy; as if evoking memories of lost time.
Sinha, also, plays with time, within sequences.
A rape accused rants on about 'Aukaad' -- and a phone buzzes right through his speech, setting our pulse on the edge. One scene of violence happens so quickly, with a certain revelation almost fused with a killing, that it caused a yell to escape my throat.
The effects of violence are conveyed impressionistically; and the contrapuntal editing underscores this style. When a policeman kills himself, we see the whole thing reflected in the face of another policeman.
The men in this movie react to such scenes and they are shaken by it; but the women have faces that suggest a numbness that comes with chronic exposure to violence.
Sayani Gupta, yet again, transforms into the vacant-eyed emblem of the oppressed; and Isha Talwar, portrays the Silence of Angels: she is the super-conscience to Ayan Ranjan's conscience.
I have a feeling Anubhav Sinha may just be building up his Repertory Company of actors; if yes, then Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra are key modules of that Company.
Pahwa and Mishra, identical in their roundness, are like Macbeth's witches here; only separated by caste (Pahwa's Brahmadutt is the upper caste Circle Inspector), and with the key difference of one having completely surrendered his voice to the other (Mishra's character, in his 50s, is shown to be still living in the echoes of his lower caste upbringing).
They are beautiful creations.
Brahmadutt has a posture and vocabulary that have adjusted to the discriminations in the system; and as his comeuppance, he feeds biscuits to hungry dogs. He is not a hollow villain, however, and gets to utter the movie's most insightful line when describing a Dalit politician, thus: 'While in power, he builds statues; once in opposition, he becomes a Dalit again.'
Kumud Mishra smiles the uncomfortable bureaucratic smile; and gets the film's funniest scene. But he also does Kumud Mishra-like things throughout: Such as pausing in the middle of a chase and gazing into the distance, standing, as if on a single leg.
Toward the closing stages, Mishra's character extracts his revenge on Pahwa's character, and the slap that achieves this balance, triggered the girl in the seat next to me, to go Woohoo!!!
What the happily howling girl didn't seem to notice was that Mishra cries slightly after he has slapped his upper caste boss. The irony of it: Triumph has come; but how do we account for the guilt?
That said; don't be surprised if you hear a lot of happy howling during Article 15: for the movie is designed to be a crowd-pleaser. And as far as crowd-pleasers go, this one knows its urban, educated audience, and what turns them on.
I would love to see how a tribal community, say, from Chhattisgarh, reacts to the film. And this inherent cunning in it is why, I think, the picture finally falls short of greatness.
Because, for all its perception and fun, we are always awake to the fact that everything we see in Article 15 has been dredged up to be assimilated by our polished higher sensibility.
We are supposed to sit back, take in everything the movie hurls at us, and feel good about ourselves for showing appreciation for the hicks and the bumpkins up on the screen, by Woohoo-ing at moments, marked out for whistles. This, while parade music, twisted up to sound like the music of doom, comes beating down on us.
Article 15 is not the work of a hack, or of someone merely scooping a plot out of newspaper headlines. It is a well-researched, clear-headed movie; but its findings have a purpose.
Anubhav Sinha has gone 'boots on the ground' so that he can put 'asses in the multiplex seats'. (I sincerely hope the movie makes a lot of money; because it cares about its fiscal responsibility to its backers as much as the 'social evils' it wants to conquer).
In the last few years, as with every institution in India, standards in Bollywood movies, too, have fricasseed. And a silent change that has occurred is that a picture which would have, just 15 years back, been termed a Masala Film, is today, a B-movie -- while another kind of cinema has taken on the mantle of Masala.
The solitary hero who battles an entire system and emerges victorious may still earn huge opening figures; but the real quality of Masala Cinema can today be felt in the arena of films espousing social causes.
So PINK, Mulk, and, now, Article 15 are actually the Masala Films of this era (With Article 15 easily being the best of the lot). And the infallible hero in each of these new-age potboilers is the Social Cause at its heart.
This change is still a little below the surface for it to be noted as a definite trend; but the cinematic technique in these films, clearly demonstrates the fact.
The most heroic moment in this particular movie, for example, involves, not a human protagonist, all tarted up, walking toward the camera, but a copy of the Constitution's Article 15 in Khurrana's hand, fluttering away gracefully, in slow motion.
That piece of paper, as much as those speeches about gender equality in PINK, or those about communal harmony in Mulk, represent heroic tropes whose powers you cannot question.
Yes! A Social Cause, in this day and age, is capital convertible to currency, just as a superstar's presence was, in a Masala film, 15 years ago.
Sinha is a man of talent, and he has been developing his technique and meticulously assembling his team; but I would have loved it if there was more of a sustaining sensibility in his works.
Is a flatterer of that audience which can tell Right from Wrong, a film-maker who efficiently appeals to the Basic Outrage in all of us, an artist? I would reserve my judgment.
The characters at the forefront of Article 15 have all been beautifully conceived -- Sinha is careful that no one is denied his or her intelligence. However, those in the background, the subjugated ones, don't do much except inspire sympathy and pity.
And so, when speeches are doled out about the plight of these sheep-like souls, and symbols, swollen with meaning, are used to campaign for their cause, it all seems, a tad, at the service of sanctimony.
The movie opens with a song in the rain -- in which a few from the lower castes gleefully recount the injustices that have been meted out to them.
In reality, many of these songs become folk numbers, many even turn into lullabies for children -- and while, as urbanites, we can sigh at the tragedies evident in them, such song-stories are, in truth, a source of strength for those who belt them out.
Anubhav Sinha understands that contradictions like these abound in our social order; but he is also, right now, in the process of launching himself as a deep thinker -- a privilege that our mainstream cinema culture had denied him in the first 17 years of his film-making career.
I remember an old David Dhawan interview in which, upon being quizzed about the quality of his films, Dhawan had said something to the effect of, 'Arey, I grew up on Fellini and Godard. But please understand, those films won't work here.'
The single-screen theatres, despite the innumerable joys they provided, had kept the lid; now the multiplex era is at its peak, and Anubhav Sinha is probably the first among that old batch, who has jumped out of the box, eager to prove his true worth; to make up for, if I can invoke that phrase again, lost time.
And so, he throws at the audience, everything in his sensibility that was submerged, thus far -- including a rendition of Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind, as the camera charts Ayan Ranjan's jeep navigating a dusty road.
Sinha may be en route to perfecting the entertaining social drama (Article 15 is a more even film than Mulk); but I suspect, he still has, one eye trained on those claps and whistles that defined his outputs in the pre-Mulk days. (His methods of getting them may have changed with the times; but the desire, is just as strong). And so, great as I believe he can be, I have a feeling he isn't biting the bullet.
There's so much more an Anubhav Sinha film can tell us about the Indian Character -- if only, he didn't wish to endear himself so completely with the urban audience.
As it stands now, Sinha's true loyalty is to that section of the crowd that takes blithe taglines such as, 'Enough of differences. Let us make a difference', as an example of a powerful statement.
It's for this audience that he shows and tells at the same time.
It's for this audience that he writes those speeches, festooned with social stats.
It's for this audience that he inserts a fast-paced number about Freedom at the end.
What Anubhav Sinha must accept is that he intuitively knows what this easily satiated audience, with its simplistic definitions, does not know: That Freedom is not a Protest Rap. Freedom is a Sad Ballad.