Article 15

[Spoilers ahead, maybe]

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 takes as its subject the rape and murder of Dalit girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Rookie IPS officer Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted to the wintry village of Lalgaon as punishment for an inappropriate exchange with his superior. He’s foreign-educated and comes with certain ideas about the country, only to be faced with sordid details about the murder. Encouraged by his estranged activist wife (Isha Talwar) and against the exhortations of his cynical, casteist subordinate Brahmadatt (Manoj Pahwa), Ayan decides to pursue the case, refusing to shut it as an instance of honour killing. He finds out that it’s not just the village outside, but his own police station that has a deep caste hierarchy defining relations between the men. Simmering in the background are an election, where an upper-caste politician forms an alliance with the local Dalit leader, and the threat of the case being handed over to a puppet CBI team headed by Panikar (Nasser).

Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayan like a Western hero riding into an unknown town, with a combination of caution and authority. Continuing his established metro-masculine image, he portrays the character with a studied calm punctuated by bursts of rage. His hands are passive and generally kept close to his body. Outdoors or at the window of his car, he’s often seen in three-quarters profile, looking beyond the left edge of the screen. He maintains this skewed, cautious posture even as he walks and the off-centre framing of the actor accentuates the sense of instability. Despite being a police officer on a hunt, he never runs in the film. There’s a shot of him tiptoeing on bricks to avoid stepping into the water – an unusual sight in a crime thriller. Khurrana’s self-effacing presence is thrown into relief by being pitted against the expressivity of the rotund Manoj Pahwa, whose mind the viewer can read even before his lips move. When Pahwa’s Brahmadatt smugly asks Ayan if he can close a case now that the minister’s vetoed it, the latter just walks out the room without outburst or repartee. Later, Ayan’s phone buzzes as he grills a suspect. It’s the minister on line to pressurize him. Instead of smashing the phone, he simply picks it up and leaves.

Ayan’s primary challenge is to understand whom to trust in this extremely-codified ecosystem where every man introduces himself with his second name. The cordial-but-distant façade Khurrana puts up as a bulwark also distances the audience from his thoughts. The film takes a convenient way out to address this, using the conversations between Ayan and his wife to let us know what’s in his mind as well as to convey us the film’s intentions. Clearly, the film wants the (urban) audience to identify with the out-of-sync Ayan, to discover the country as he discovers it, but there’s hardly anything in the film that anyone who’s lived in this country for long enough isn’t aware of. The script foists an unfair naivete onto Ayan, an IPS officer, just in order to make his observations sound like revelations. So much so that the audience frequently has an advance on Ayan on the turn of events. This naïve streak undercuts the intelligent aura Khurrana cultivates for Ayan and makes it hard for the audience to trust his authority when he finally gets his grand showdown with the CBI officer, who is also given a short shrift in order to make Ayan look righteous.

To be sure, Ayan is given his naivete because Article 15 also wants to problematize Ayan’s (and the audience’s) deracinated, urban perspective. The character’s status as an outsider, a pseudo-firang, is repeatedly underscored from beginning to end. In the second scene of the film, Ayan drives to the village he’s supposed to take charge of. Next to him is a copy of Nehru’s The Discovery of India, not the Indian constitution. On the soundtrack is Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, not an old Hindi song. The driver of the car tells him a blunt parable about a village whose lights were out when Rama returned from his long exile. Ayan looks at a construction site in the countryside and wonders if it’s a mall. On phone a while later, he tells his wife that the place looks like the wild west, and his wife replies that he’s in “page 7 India” (meaning the India that doesn’t show up in the front page). In contrast to the unkempt faces and conveniently-worn mufflers of his peers, throughout the film, Ayan is clean-shaven, impeccably groomed and sports a blazer and a tie even though he has to run around in the muck. He’s advised not to “upset the balance” of the village with his meddling and to stay in line. Even the Malayalee CBI officer prompts him to speak in Hindi in place of English.

Article 15 traces the dissolution of Ayan’s faith in law and order and his disillusionment with the constitution. Ayan is a Brahmin whose privilege makes him unaware of his own caste. His wife points out the stranglehold of caste in “page 7 India” even as she turns down a boy selling trinkets at a signal. An admonishing remark about keeping Dalits in check in order to ensure water services is neatly cut to a shot of Ayan opening a tap. However, this criticism of Ayan’s outlook doesn’t have any force because it takes the final form of a general, post-emergency mistrust of politics so pervasive in Indian cinema: justice cannot be served because politicians on top are corrupt. This easy explanation of continued caste discrimination lets both Ayan and the audience off the hook. Compare this with Newton, another film where a protagonist representing the ideals of democracy comes up against a cynical feudal establishment. By the time the film ends, Newton’s unwavering belief in suffrage as a noble value in itself, so reflective of the audience’s, is upended and the unexamined beliefs underlying empty voting advocacy questioned.

There’s something else that erodes the dramatic quality of the film. By design or accident, Article 15 is not constructed like traditional thriller, which is what it’s marketed as. All the key information about the story is given to us early on in the film. In the very first scene, we know that two girls have been abducted, raped in a bus and murdered. In a couple of scenes later, Ayan notices both their bodies hanging next to each other off a tree. It’s obviously not a suicide – there’s not even an effort to make it appear as one – and the audience doesn’t mind since it already knows it’s a murder. A more conventional approach would have Ayan learn of missing girls and the plot would be the quest to retrieve them. Barely half an hour into the film, Brahmadatt is revealed to be a reprehensible character. So, a plot twist later in the film has no impact outside of a two-second shock. The dramatic progression of the film is flat because we learn things before Ayan does, and because Ayan doesn’t have any real obstacles in his investigation. Several story threads turn out to be stubs and characters are conveniently disposed of to wrap things up. The search for a third missing girl, which is the concluding passage of the film, has no emotional weight not because it succeeds the resolution of the plot but because there are no moral stakes in the discovery.

What does carry the film through despite these shortcomings is its ominous atmosphere. Director Anubhav Sinha and cinematographer Ewan Mulligan work out specific visual ideas for the film. Most of Article 15 is lit dramatically with angular light sources that produce strong shadows on actors’ faces. One of the scenes takes place under the flashing red-blue lights of police sirens. All the outdoor scenes are shot either at dawn or at golden hour to a point of self-parody. The crimson sky, the mist and the open fields of the countryside form a vast horizontal triptych against which actors are filmed in American shots. Many times, the camera glides down roads or marshlands and the actors walk towards it looking off-screen. The slow-burning sound design, with its low-frequency drones and intermittent percussion, constantly portends revelations that never come. This transposition of horror movie tropes on a social-realist film – and not the edgy name-dropping of castes and political parties – is what in the end gives the film its visceral quality.