The hot sams (samosas) are for Rs. 4. It’s not a canteen. It’s a cafe. At the cafe at St. Stephen’s college in Delhi University, you might be asked to zap the chap (chapati). Denizens of this elite college can be heard discussing the G-jams (gulab jamuns) in Carol Gardens (yes, Karol Bagh for the rest of you.) And writing the IAS examinations that propel students into the elite cadre of administrators is de riguer. (But hold that thought about the Rs. 4 samosa).
Because this is the rarefied environment from which has emerged police officer Ayan Ranjan (played by an English-swearing Ayushmann Khurana) in Article 15. Ranjan is sent to Lalganj, as deputy-Chief of district police, as penance for saying “cool, sir” to a senior officer. This film could have gone in the direction of English, August: An Indian Story (1988) by Upamanyu Chatterjee that described the ennui and maladjustment of a self-absorbed Indian civil servant when he is posted in the hinterland.
Instead, it is more a crime thriller like Mississipi Burning, with stark shots by cinematographer Ewan Mulligan of two young dalit girls swinging lifeless from a tree. The lynching victims, Ranjan finds out, had the audacity to ask for a raise in their daily wages for Rs. 3 (less than that samosa in St. Stephen’s cafe.) The film is a chilling indictment of a complicit bureaucracy to a Hall of Shame. Film director Anubhav Sinha has closely paralleled multiple true events including 2014 Badaun gang rape allegations and 2016 Una flogging incident in the film. The title is a reference to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste.
The stellar Ayushman Khurana, who has been playing the role of the slightly defective ordinary Indian guy next door, is believable in the film, if slightly less anglicised than that chap-zapping Stephanian. Manoj Pahwa does justice to a negative role as a sinister double-chinned thulla (or mama) (or cop). Sayani Gupta and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub shine as dalits who clearly see oppression, but are powerless against an entrenched system.
A haunting image in the film is of a man jumping into a manhole and emerging from a full body dubki (dunk) into sewage. Footage of garbage piling up as dalits refuse to be treated as trash sends a clear message. Time for some upper caste brown sahibs and memsahibs to jump into the muck. Any takers?
Article 15 (2019). Director: Anubhav Sinha; Writers: Anubhav Sinha, Gaurav Solanki. Players: Ayushmann Khurrana, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa. Producer: Sagar Shirgaonkar. Cinematographer: Ewan Mulligan. Production companies: Benaras Mediaworks and Zee Studios.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.