Recently, Bollywood has been churning out a barrage of “decent” movies. After decades of mind-numbing escapism where we have seen movies like Humshakals and Dhamaal, we have finally reached a stage in hindi cinema, where bold filmmakers seem ready to tackle current social issues head on. One such recent release is Article 15 starring Ayushmann Khurrana. The movie, from the off-set makes you supremely uncomfortable with its casual casteism, since most of us elite film-goers don’t realize that this isn’t fiction: the caste problem very much still exists in India.
Narrating stories from a ‘caste’ gaze
If caste is such a prominent theme in India, how have filmmakers gotten away without a mention in the last few decades? Critics believe that the reason behind this is simple: most of the directors Bollywood boasts about or supports (in terms of repeat commercial successes), are upper caste men themselves. Their work is highly appreciated, but that being said, they lack a certain perspective when it comes to narrating the ‘caste problem’. You only hear the hues and cries from the oppressed, never the oppressor. That is not to say that these directors have personally victimized people due to caste differences, just that they, having never experienced the side-effects of caste, have not had a story to narrate. This perspective of a ‘director’ and its relevance in ‘caste’ being central to the theme of a movie is more plainly evident when you compare Sairat and its hindi remake Dhadak.
Sairat, directed by Nagaraj Manjule, is a story about an inter-caste couple who despite all odds fall in love, and escape their oppressors in the village to start a new life. The samaaj they ran away from, however, catches up with them, and brutally murders the couple in the name of honour. All because the daughter of an upper-caste man ran away with the love of her life, who was born into a low caste family. The language, attire, and even their home settings all carefully reflect the caste each character belongs to. Dhadhak on the other hand, directed by Shashank Khaitan , is a watered down version and focuses on the Romeo-Juliet love angle rather than the inherent caste problem. It is a love story where economic disparity between the families is the root cause of discontent, instead of the caste of the respective families.
‘Caste’ is not an ingredient for commercial success
Dhadak was a commercial success, whereas Sairat was lauded as a cult film. This should tell you something about us, as the audience, who consumes the entertainment products. It tells us that caste issues are not ‘hot’ and do not ‘settle’ well with the audience. Which is why we see movies like Lagaan and Swades touch upon caste issues as ancillary to the film plot, and not central to it. Kachra could never be the hero, and if we delved into the caste politics in Swades, it would take several sequels to achieve the story’s desired ending.
We as an audience, crave escapism and utopia. Aakrosh (2010) and Hulchul (2004), it would surprise you to know, are directed by the same person, Priyadarshan. Where is the incentive for filmmakers to make meaningful movies like Aakrosh which attempt to unravel the hypocrisy in our society? Why showcase the realities in outskirts of ‘developed’ cities, when ‘leave-your-brain-at-home’ movies like Hulchul and Hungama perform better at the box office? One thing is certain: we, the audience, do not like being shown a mirror, lest we see a reflection of our dirty practices and corroding soul. We instead hide them in layers of foundation, as you would a blemish on your face, and pretend it does not hinder with the plot. Article 15 breaks away from that ‘commercial recipe’ norm, and boldly approaches the issues of casteism as prevalent in India today, achieving impact akin to Sadgati (directed by Satyajit Ray, 1981), Ankur (directed by Shyam Benegal, 1974) or even Achhut Kanya (directed by Franz Osten, Niranjan Pal and Himanshu Rai, 1936).
‘Article 15′ and the disturbing over’Caste’
In an interview, director Anubhav Sinha confessed that his aim in creating the movie Article 15 was to, ‘highlight our ignorance/inadvertent complicity. Or, even fully advised complicity and inertia’ and to introduce the educated elite of our country to the fact that the ‘caste’ problem is not a thing of the past. The film focuses on the abduction, rape and murder of sisters from the fictional village of Laalgaon. The case was inspired by the real life horrors we encountered in Badaun in 2014. The case was chilling, where the murdered girls were hanged in the village, in plain view, as a lesson to their caste communities. They were raped and murdered for asking for a mere 3 rupees raise in their daily wages. That part wasn’t fictionalised.
The movie also tried to also round up other caste based crimes we have seen rise in the recent years (since 2014 to be precise): flogging for entering temples, beatings administered for wearing the wrong shoes or clothes, and practice of manual scavenging, among others. The movie also touches upon the systemic collusion in ‘caste’ practices. Gaura, sister of one of the deceased girls, is the voice of the downtrodden in the film. She acutely points out that the politician who came to their village to propagate unity between the upper caste men and lower caste men in the region, by “sharing a meal” with the local Dalit leader, brought his own utensils and food, but what was reported by media was purely photo-op for political benefit.
Common but Silenced: Caste Practices Prevail in India
In the past few years, the conversation around caste has gained a new wind. This time, the issue is not merely of political posturing in the name of reservations, but a deeper concern that is an attack on the very soul of our country. Caste based violence has increased in number and in its brutality. Bhakts and gundas have taken to the streets to assert their savarna status, and minor transgressions by lower caste communities have been met with unspeakable brutality and inhumane treatment. A report by Amnesty International stated that, “more than 40000 crimes against Scheduled Castes were reported in 2016. Several incidents were reported of members of dominant castes attacking dalits for accessing public and social spaces or for perceived caste transgressions”.
Whether it is the murder of Jisha, or abetting the suicide of Dr. Payal Tadvi, the burning of an entire family for suspicion over stealing a mobile phone, or the ever increasing instances of mob lynching on suspicion of cow consumption: caste based crimes are a reality. Our community is steadily moving away from the India envisioned by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, with news reports about select communities banning inter-caste marriages. One thing is certain, our caste practices have evolved from untouchability, refusing to acknowledge their personhood, to outright brutality and express attempts to suppress the rise of minorities. It is a relief to see movies like Article 15, which acknowledge these common but silenced social evils prevalent in our society. The media and entertainment industry have been unfairly burdened with being the harbinger of change, but hopefully this movie indicates a shift in the lens of Bollywood, away from mindless escapism to confronting neo-realism.