The movie Article 15 opens with contrasting ambience and colour. A gloomy rainy village and a bright sunny highway. A famous protest song ‘Kahab Toh’ on one side, and Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin in the Wind’ on the other. Basically, a terribly failed attempt at drawing contrast between upper castes vs lower castes as urban vs rural. Caste does not exist in cities and urban set-ups; let’s go to a remote village to experiment with heroism and capitalise on it. Ayan Ranjan (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) finally enters the ‘wild wild west’ where he and the upper-caste audience witness caste crimes and violence for the first time.
“What the f*ck is going on here?”, screams the IPS officer, who is proud of being a Stephenian and abroad return but has no idea about what is happening in his own country.
- Are you telling me that Ayan cleared that UPSC examination with no clue about what his caste is, or what the caste system is?
- The IPS officer also asks “Pasi? Matlab?”
- “I will unmess this mess,” he says whilst admitting that we need to find new ways and solutions to “unmess” things but does not give any by the end of the film. The film, as it claims, should be talking about annihilating the caste system and denouncing the root cause of it, the Hindu religion, but it does not.
There is an uncomfortable upper-caste gaze throughout Article 15. Even directors like Nagaraj Manjule have portrayed caste crimes, but one does not see a foreign gaze in his films. It looks real. It does not distance the audience from the screen as if we are watching it as a bystander. Article 15 goes wrong here. When Ayan gets off his car in the village, you see some old men sitting and eating bread. He messages his partner saying, “They are looking at me as if I am British”.
Bollywood regularly indulges in “brown/black facing” characters from marginalised locations, for example, in films like Super 30, Gully Boy, and Udta Punjab. Article 15 too makes characters look “dirty” to show them poor and dark-skinned. These films feed on the stereotype that lower castes are unclean, unhygienic, dark-skinned by default, can only be in tattered clothes, etc.
These films feed on the stereotype that lower castes are unclean, unhygienic, dark-skinned by default, can only be in tattered clothes, etc.
Whenever untouchability is portrayed, the Brahmin protagonist is shown as someone who is willing to share glasses, plates and food with the lower castes. But the people from lower castes themselves refuse saying, “No no sir, we will bring you a new plate”. The director has put the onus of the practice on the lower castes but not the upper castes who force and lynch the lower castes if they fail to follow the rules of Manu/Brahmins.
I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect
In this nation of casteist bigots, blinded by wealth,
I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest.
I am someone who dies repeatedly to live.
Don’t call me a victim,
I am an immortal, I am an immortal, I am an immortal
A mere attempt to capitalise on struggles when you yourself are so prejudiced is the irony, but also the reality of any media industry from print to cinema.
[Kuffir Nalgundwar’s translation of Kalekuri Prasad’s Telugu poem ‘Pidikedu Aatmagauravam Kosam’ (A Fistful of Self-Respect). The original post appeared in The Shared Mirror on Feb 23, 2011. It can be accessed here]
Divya Kandukuri is a freelance journalist whose work lies around the intersections of caste, gender, pop culture and mental health.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)