Harshita Tyagi

Article 15 is a Bollywood movie directed by Anubhav Sinha. It was released in 2019, and was critically acclaimed and also a box office success. The box office success is a big achievement in itself because, in the Bollywood movie industry, movies with such subject matters are often termed as ‘art-house movies’ or ‘parallel cinema’. Such movies usually are not a box office success, i.e. not many people come and watch these in movie theatres. The fact that a renowned and successful actor agreed to be part of such a film made a two-fold contribution to the film at large. First, the movie reached a larger audience, and second, a famous and loved personality became the face of the message that it intended to convey.

At its core, cinema is an artistic expression; its purpose can be multi-fold, but it’s also supposed to reflect the society. However, with movies like Article 15, Padman, Toilet- Ek Prem Katha, etc, the scope of the purpose of cinema broadens. These movies have an urgent message to convey. Therefore, it is crucial to discuss the outreach of these movies to check whether they fulfilled their purpose or not. Why is it important? It is the epicenter of the entire paradigm. Article 15 was a fascinating movie because it caused a good chunk of the millennial population to initiate a conversation on the unpopular word ‘caste’. Before jumping onto the critical analysis of the film and the plot, it is vital to point out the significance of such a movie in today’s time. This movie caused a knee-jerk reaction from the 21st-century urban dwellers and the privileged class. It brought to the forefront the fact that the regressive caste system is still a reality for many. For this very simple reason, the film must be applauded.

The movie is based on true events of the 2014 Badaun gang rape and murder case [1]. Ayan is a well-educated bureaucrat who comes from an elitist background. He represents the modern urban population, who, more or less, has a very superficial and uninformed idea of the ground reality of casteism. For him, like most of us, caste is an age-old concept; it exists but doesn’t irk. He is then suddenly thrown in the middle of this haunting situation of the murder of two minor girls. The blame is on the girls’ parents, however, they suggest differently. Later, it is disclosed that the girls were raped because they pleaded for a minuscule increase in their daily wage. With one of the three girls still missing, the story becomes a saga of search, revelations, and ghastly realities. Some of the police officers themselves are found to be the perpetrators of the crime. For the most part, the movie does concur with the actual events of the 2014 Badaun case; however, unlike the actual case, the movie has a ‘silver lining’ ending. It is overall a stylized version of reality. But, the pragmatic treatment of the word ‘caste’ was refreshing. In one scene Ayan is being apprised which category of Brahmin he is, and how there are hierarchies in the upper castes as well; this scene, in particular, was a reflection of how, for people, caste is still a very integral part of their identity. It showed how one should be aware of the social functions and status affiliated with their caste.

This brings us to the other idea which the movie touches upon, which is the cyclic nature of subjugation. Kisan Jatav (Kumud Mishra) tells how his parents were sweepers, but he was able to become a police officer. In his case, even though he was able to break the chain of destiny, he couldn’t attain actual freedom. Not only did his colleagues look down upon him, but he has also came to terms with the inferior treatment that he faced. Like in one scene, Brahmdatt Singh (Manoj Pahwa) slaps him, to which he does not retaliate. Since, Brahmdatt is not only his senior at the job but, also belongs to an upper caste. 

Woh iss kitaab ki nahi chalne dete, jiski yeh shapath lete hain.” – A very interesting dialogue from the movie which puts the entire issue in a nutshell. The Right to Equality is a fundamental right in India. The preamble to our constitution states that all the citizens of India must be secured with Equality of status and opportunity [2] . It would be irresponsible to say that caste discrimination today is limited to the rural heartlands of our country. It exists, subtly or openly, in metropolitans as well. Some idioms that reverberate in rural, as well as urban walls, are –“Kaha Raja Bose, Kaha Gangu Teli” (here Teli is the name of a caste), “Kehne se Kumhar Gadha nahi chadhta”, “Neechi Jaat latiyaye achha”, etc. Many caste names are still used in wrong connotations as abusive words. Article 17 [6] of the constitution abolishes the practice of untouchability and makes its practice a punishable offense. Article 35 of the Indian Constitution [6] gives the Parliament the power to make penal laws for the offenses mentioned under Article 17 [2]. For example, Section 153(A) [6] of the Indian Penal Code prescribes punishment for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony. We also have The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Regardless of all these, it seems there is an abyss between the law and its effectiveness.

In the movie, Nishad (a character inspired by Chandra Shekhar Azad) says, “Hum kabhi Harijan ho jate hain, kabhi Bahujan ho jate hain. Bas jan nahi ban paate hain taaki jan gan man me hamari bhi ginti ho”. The words ‘Bahujan’ and ‘Harijan’ have been used to refer to scheduled castes. However, the latter was termed offensive by the Supreme Court [6]. The word ‘Harijan’ has a long history in itself. ‘Harijan’, meaning ‘children of God’, was a term first used by Mahatma Gandhi to refer to Dalits in 1932. He even started three journals in English, Hindi, and Gujarati in the same name in 1933. When Gandhi started using the term, many including BR Ambedkar objected to it, stating that it was condescending and obscurantist in nature, an attempt to side-step the real issue [7]. ‘Bahujan’ on the other hand means ‘people in the majority’, which has now become an object of politics. However, these vocabularies do little to no good for the scheduled castes. It is nothing but a snobbish way of creating a hollow sense of equalization. The true essence of equality must also include the fulfillment of the desire for self-respect. Someone who is facing social hardships, inequality, and oppression should in no way be looked down upon with pity; it just adds to their plight. 

Syed A. Rouf, during the constituent assembly debate, during the discussion on Article 9 (present article 15) said, “This article intends to prohibit discrimination against citizens. We have prohibited discrimination on grounds of ‘religion, race, caste or sex’. But I am afraid, Sir, the evil elements who might attempt to discriminate against citizens will do so not on the ground of religion, race, caste, or sex. To attempt to discriminate on grounds of religion will be too frontal an attack for anybody to dare. As for caste, the same argument applies”. [3] It is rather hapless that this was stated in 1949. After all these years, we are still shackled by discriminatory practices. Crime against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) saw an increase of over 7% and 26% respectively in the year 2019 compared to 2018 [4]. In 2020, the country was shaken by the gruesome Hathras gang rape [5] in which a Dalit woman was raped by the upper caste men of the village. The fact remains, that even in 2021, a child born in an upper-caste family is apprised of his/her privileges and entitlement; he/she is made aware of his ‘caste’ and the history and gravitas it holds. As much as a Dalit family is liable for teaching their children inferiority, an upper-caste family is also liable for teaching theirs superiority.

Article 15 could have been grittier like ‘Firaaq‘; nevertheless, it was truthful. Other departments, namely acting, cinematography, production design, background score, and direction were brilliant. The writing was gut-wrenching yet digestible. Finally, there are good movies, bad movies, excellent movies, and then there are movies that are ‘necessary’; like this one. 

The name of the author is Harshita Tyagi, pursuing BLS LLB SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law Mumbai. Presently contributing author at The Blue Letters.

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