A big city bureaucrat appointed to oversee a small town police department gets tangled in a web of politics, caste, and greed in the dynamite thriller Article 15.
Ayan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is the ideal audience avatar. He rolls into the town of Laalgaon, telling his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) over the phone that the place looks like something out of an ’80s movie. He notes the freshness of the country air. It’s a world apart from the large cities — domestic and international — that Ayan is used to.
Besides the predictable culture shock, there’s something strange about the town. Despite what Ayan said about the fresh air, there’s a pall over the town that bathes it and its inhabitants in sickly yellow or gray tones (per cinematographer Ewan Mulligan). Ayan meets a former classmate, Satyendra (Aakash Dabhade), who is evasive and twitchy instead of the cheerful friend Ayan remembers. The rest of the cops — led by Ayan’s second-in-command, Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) — are eager to close the case of two Dalit (lower caste) girls who were reported missing days earlier and found murdered. Only Ayan seems interested in the whereabouts of a third girl reported missing with them.
At first, Ayan is too smug to see what’s really going on, buoyed his sense of worldliness and the power accorded his position. He accepts Bhramadatt’s assessment of the murders as “honor killings” committed by the girls’ fathers, and he’s dismissive of Gaura (Sayani Gupta), the sister of the third missing girl. Only when he discovers that Bhramadatt is stalling him on the results of the postmortem and when his own men are attacked by Dalit activists does Ayan realize that he’s missing crucial pieces of the puzzle.
Laalgaon is governed by a rigid, complicated interpretation of the caste system. There are layers within layers, so that everyone ranks slightly above or below someone else. It reinforces social systems governing occupations, food handling, even whose shadow is allowed to fall on whom.
Money perpetuates the caste system in town, even though using it to discriminate against certain groups is officially prohibited by Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. By marginalizing the lowest castes, the people at the top ensure a steady supply of what is essentially slave labor. American audiences will notice similarities to how the white power structure here replaced lost laborers following the abolition of slavery, as explained in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. The activist group in the Article 15 is in part a sort of militant labor union, and when they strike, the film shows in disgusting detail how dependent the town is on the workers who do the “dirty” jobs no one else wants.
Some people in Laalgaon have transcended certain aspects of their caste, such as Jatav (Kumud Mishra), who became a police officer with Bhramadatt’s help, even though his father was a school janitor. The status elevation turned Jatav into one of the most vocal critics of those below him, and his fear of falling back down the ladder keeps him subservient to those above. His eventual realization that turning his back on his people only made things worse is hard-earned and painful.
The scene that best captures the all-encompassing nature of Laalgaon’s power dynamics involves Bhramadatt and Jatav. As both men sob, Bhramadatt shakes Jatav, accusing him of ingratitude and endangering their very lives by aiding Ayan’s investigation. (More than one character states that the worst that will happen to Ayan is he’ll be transferred, while the locals who help him will be killed.) Though Bhramdatt ranks higher socially than Jatav, both serve the rich and politically connected at the top. Seeing these gray-haired men so terrified drives home how precarious their lives have always been in a place governed by something other than the rule of law.
Pahwa and Mishra are the standouts in a film full of amazing performances. Gupta is resolute in the face of a system designed not to help people like her. Same for Ronjini Chakraborty as the junior Medical Examiner who knows the truth of what happened to the murdered girls. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s portrayal of the Dalit revolutionary leader is terrific.
Aditi tells Ayan at one point that she doesn’t want him to be a hero, she wants him to be the man who doesn’t wait for the hero to arrive. That sentiment governs the way Khurrana plays Ayan. There’s a problem to solve, and Ayan does it without a lot of flash, using the skills he has at his disposal. Khurrana’s understated performance suits the movie perfectly.
Article 15 has a few moments that feel a little preachy, but they’re born of director Anubhav Sinha’s and writer Gaurav Solanki’s passion for the film’s message of justice. Their movie is thoughtful and relevant, with jaw-dropping surprises. Article 15 is a must-see.