There’s a scene in Article 15 that is indicative of the pace of progress in Lalgaon, the rural town where the story is set. It is a place where witness statements are still typed on typewriters, no sign of computers here. Not just the physical elements of change, even the thought process has got stuck in time. Despite Article 15 of the constitution that protects against discrimination, the main force of administration here is ‘santulan’ or balance. Balance that has been maintained over generations, a system that made a few powerful groups lord over lesser beings. Even an attempt to break the status quo is swiftly and brutally crushed. Publically too, so that the message is loud and clear. No one can be more than their “aukaat”, a word too complex to explain in English. Aukaat is not just status, but a mixture of cast and social standing.
To this rural town comes Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), a city-bred young idealistic IPS Officer with no knowledge of either case dynamics or rural politics of the Hindi heartland. The only person who he can talk to on the same wavelength is his wife Aditi (Isha Talwar), despite their relationship being far from amiable. Ayan’s conscience is jolted when two young Dalit girls are murdered and his own police department is ready to sweep the incident under the carpet. The common refrain being, “these people are like that only”. While Ayan suspects the local strongman of the crime, he is unaware of the rot that runs in the system. Taking out one criminal is hardly going to make a difference in the well-oiled system based on discrimination. His very own men on the force are the product of the same thought that pervades the regressive society. Anubhav Sinha is clearly speaking for the marginalized sections of the society and his voice is Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), a Dalit rebel who is no longer ready to suffer silently and is slowly rising to be a force. He is neither liked by the local upper caste strongmen nor by the established government, who are afraid to lose their hold.
The film is styled like a thriller, but also pauses to ponder and ruminate on the system we are so hell bent on maintaining. The focus on Ayan’s struggle with the order does drive the point home but also slows down the pace. Excellent performance all around succeeds in keeping the viewer’s interest from flagging when the film slows down in between. Ayushmann Khurrana is in solid form. No swagger of a leading man, he brings the right measure of authority, frustration and helplessness to his character. Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra are veterans and we do not expect any less from them. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub has a meaty role and he has made the best of it. His character is perhaps the most powerful in the film. Sayani Gupta impresses as the love of Nishad.
Article 15 packages a dark brooding content in a manner that makes it palatable to the larger audience. No pretense of making a masterpiece here. But a call to change our thought, to look at things divorced from centuries of conditioning. Even if Mr. Sinha is able to influence thinking of a fraction of his viewers, it will be a giant step in the right direction.