Archita Kashyap - 54 weeks ago
Focused on regressive fault lines and enduring legacy of caste prejudices, Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 highlights an uncommon, relevant social issue for Indian cinema.
Caste is a rare conversation addressed by mainstream Indian cinema. Given that caste in India conflates with politics, often leading to controversy and mindless agony for a filmmaker prior to a film’s release, mainstream filmmakers veer away from relevant, socially resonant stories. A big part of this is also a long standing lack of will to invest in research, on-ground fact finding and thus, developing a story around caste based violence by filmmakers of renown. Which is why, Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 becomes a film to watch out for today. Sinha has made a pivot from high budget stylised masala films to a hard hitting social and legal drama with Mulk. This film talked to the audience from the point of view of those who have experienced prejudice - driven by religion or gender. It held up solid arguments against bracketing people based on their religious faith and how that can change life. With Article 15, Sinha tackles a recent blood curdling incident of caste based rape, sexual violence and lynching that occurred in Uttar Pradesh, from the point of view of an educated, progressive police man who must bring perpetrators to justice.
What makes a film based on the caste divide relevant for audiences today? Caste penetrates social interaction, familial interaction, decisions like marriage and fraternising till date. It’s not uncommon, although very surprising for the author, that introductions of a person, at a social gathering or informal lunch, is preceded by reference to one’s surname even today. You might be doing so in a metropolis like Mumbai or Delhi, but references to one’s caste and surname do crop up in elite circles and amongst those that are wealthy. An ‘arranged marriage’, albeit done through online matchmaking websites that are driven by data analytics, is considered a ‘good thing’ and a ‘blessing’. Living one’s life in boxed out segments, even for those with an education and employment in elite jobs, is an active choice that people make, and caste is the ultimate social marker and filter at play. No surprises then that Sinha has found rich material in the behaviour of law enforcers - the police - that is driven by caste politics and prejudice.
(Anubhav Sinha explaining a scene to Taapsee Pannu, Rishi Kapoor and Manoj Pahwa during the filming of Mulk)
Prior to Sinha, some filmmaker have addressed the caste issue in recent times with precision and success. Nagraj Manjule highlights the absurd, violent reality of honour killings in Sairat (2016), and Pa Ranjith also focuses on a love story aside from a man’s desire to move up in life in Kaala (2018). Manjule had first focused on how caste can limit a person’s aspirations and chances with his debut film, Fandry (2013). People in love have suffered in the hands of those that enforce caste divide, that’s a prevalent reality of India. Making it into a film brings it to life with characters that one can relate to, and invest in emotionally. Shyam Benegal’s classic Ankur (1974) is one of the most powerful and poignant dramas about the debilitating manner in which caste can be used to destroy lives of a poor couple. Similarly, Bandit Queen (1994), that captured the revenge of Phoolan Devi, a victim of casteism’s ugliest punishment - gang rape, is a masterpiece. Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya (2019) also touched upon faultiness of caste and enduring violence in the 1970s. Winner of FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes Film Festival 2015, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2014) was a brave attempt to showcase how people’s interaction differ based on their castes.
(Ranvir Shorey and Sushant Singh Rajput in a still from Sonchiriya)
In the course of covering manifestations of caste based violence in Indian society since Independence, these films have also looked upon the complexities and hypocrisies of this system. If a person from a lower caste drinks water from wells of a higher caste, then the water turns impure. Yet physical assault on women of lower castes, be it gang rapes, routine abuse of farm labourers or humiliation like parading a woman naked, does not make a man of a higher caste impure. In Sonchiriya, raping a pre-teen girl by a village elder of a high caste is forgivable by those in his community, but hurting this perpetrator physically is enough to become severe punishment, like making a son want to murder his mother. In essence, the caste system has traditionally empowered those in positions of power and privilege for hundreds of years in India. It continues to do so in democratic, post-independence India, in a concealed but immovable, permanent manner.
(A still from Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen)
Article 15 has focused on regressive fault lines without hesitation. In the film’s trailer, policemen identify their own selves and those around them by their caste names. Crimes reported by those from lower, untouchable castes are ignored, as ‘common incidences’. A criminal’s act is assessed as per his position in the caste hierarchy. A hike of just three rupees in hourly wages is considered offensive enough to de-humanize young girls. That it focuses on such a pertinent social issue, which over six decades of a progressive Constitution has not been able to change fundamentally, makes this film hold out promise.
For the author, caste is a rather a random, irritating reference. Coincidentally, given her surname being Brahminical, at social gatherings of a super-rich friend in Mumbai, she has often been forcibly introduced with her husband’s surname (a lesser caste from Uttar Pradesh). As someone from Assam, a state where tribal influences dilute caste rigidity completely, this has been both annoying and enlightening as to just how regressive and stuck in time even those with an education in our country can be. If films like Article 15 can bring in room for re-thinking of such redundant behaviour that would be victory enough. Other than that, if it turns out to be a good, hard hitting watch, then that’s all the more reason to address caste and its ugly prejudices on mainstream cinema more frequently. Popular art can create real impact when done well.
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