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“Article 15 Doesn’t Go Beyond A Savarna Gaze, Where Dalits Are Always Seen As Victims”

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What is the one solution to end casteism?

“Let’s not teach it to the future generations, what is the need?”

This is the quick fix that the lead actor of Article 15, Ayushmann Khurrana suggests in the movie.

The symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor is different. Asking us to forget about 5000 years of oppression and violence as a key to annihilate caste reveals the shallow understanding of the entire social complexities and dynamics of India.

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 may have been successful enough to catch the collective sympathy of the cine-goers about the plight of the Dalit community and to stir questions on caste discrimination, but the movie does not fail to fall into the quintessential cinema sequence where the hero comes into the lives of the downtrodden and at the end emancipates them.

Although the movie has been well received by the audience for rightly addressing the functioning of caste inequalities in India, the entire framework of the film feeds on certain deep-seated stereotypes. Throughout the length of the film, those with a disadvantaged caste background are shown as a voiceless collective until Ayan Ranjan, (played by Khurrana) an upper-caste IPS officer, posted in the village comes and gives voice to them.

What is even more disturbing in the film is the fact that those apparently with a disadvantaged caste background are always portrayed with a shabby appearance, messy hair, catering to the general notion of the Dalit community always being unclean and unhygienic. Maybe the makers of the film felt that if the lower castes wore neat clothes or pinned up their hair straight, they might not make them ‘Pasi’ enough.

The film, however, delivers certain hard-hitting scenes and dialogues with the intense background score. One of the most electric scenes that sent a chill down my spine was where a manual scavenger, holds his breath and enters into an overflowing septic tank.

Gaura, an important character in the film, played by Sayani Gupta is shown strong and assertive in other frames but her eyes are suddenly conquered by fear whenever Ayan enters the frame. Another strong personality in the film is Nishad who seems like an obvious impersonation of Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army and hence is characterised to lead the Dalit community of the village for the assertion of their dignity.

However, Nishad dies in the middle of the film. In other words, such a strong voice is killed in order to make way for Ayan, a savarna (upper-caste) police officer to become the emancipator. This reflects the underlying Brahminical idea of the oppressor being the ultimate emancipator. Though this narrative has been punctured time and again by growing Dalit resistance and assertion.

The film doesn’t go beyond a savarna gaze, a gaze where the Dalit are always seen as permanent victim bodies, with no ambition and assertion of their own. To understand the complexities of caste and violence one needs to look above this portrayal. Films like Sairat, Masaan, Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal are examples of going beyond such portrayals. They have shattered the narrow narratives and the narrow characterisations.

Nagaraj Manjule’s Sairat and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal are important films, for they stand apart, for the quest for dignity where it is the marginalised who unapologetically resist and move forward in their struggles. These narratives have drawn a clear line between victimhood and upliftment.

Article 15, while addressing the caste divide in India, intentionally or unintentionally reiterates the same idea of how only someone with an upper-caste identity can become the emancipator. The film at many junctures points out the discernment of the Dalit to attain justice. These are bleak and harrowing stories, and the film rightly points out the negligence and cruelty inflicted upon the marginalized but has also conveniently ignored their side of resistance and dignity.

The actor also in further interviews says that in cities the scenario is not that bad, that the ‘modern’ urban population is “receptive” and “inclusive” and that it is in rural India where caste is more visible.

Maybe Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad to Payal Tadvi in Mumbai or Shahrukh, Ankit and Devendra Sharma, (the three manual scavengers who died in the last week of June 2019, in the national capital while entering a 30 ft drain for the Delhi Jal Board) are not visible enough to count as caste atrocities in the so-called ‘modern’ set up.

The film ends with Ayan solving the case, ‘delivering justice’ with the famous ‘Vaishnava Jana’ playing in the background and all the policemen having food together symbolising the annihilation of caste in that village. Can caste complexities be just reduced to inter-dining?

Inter-dining cannot be adequate enough to kill the deeply rooted caste consciousness, the challenge lies much beyond and deeper. The film does not challenge but rather reinforces the status quo and the same idea of the caste system of the ‘oppressor can only rescue the oppressed.’

We live in a world, one which we have created ourselves, where we can fly to other planets but light years seem to separate us from those who live with and battle with the worst oppression and cruelties. However, the truth is that the distance between human beings is no greater than the elementary recognition of our equal human dignity”

– Harsh Mander, in his book Fatal Accidents of Birth

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  1. sandeepanb2005

    There could have been a Dalit hero and that would have been wonderful. How would a privileged person like the current protagonist understand the gravity of the situation unless he feels them through their own experience (still second hand).

    Killing of Nishad was also essential signifying both the insecure and brutal nature of the Indian state and the fact that the Dalit movement for equality is incredibly tough and long. The pathos that it generated were incomparable otherwise.

    Full disclosure: I am an urban, upper caste (Brahmin at that) Male and the above is simply from my POV.

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