*Trigger Warning*: Mentions of rape, caste-based discrimination, caste-based violence
I, with my urban, upper-caste/class privilege chose not to watch Article 15 and Fandry as long as I could, as I was afraid that I would be disturbed by violence and discrimination shown in the movies. But with the events of the Hathras rape case unfolding in the last few days, I called out my cowardice and realised that it is precisely this indifference, that is one of the causes of the continuing oppression of one section of the society towards the other. I decided to watch Article 15 on Netflix.
While plenty of books have been written on the issue of caste and gender-based violence, sometimes by writers from the oppressed caste themselves, the problem has carefully been evaded by our mainstream cinema.
Leave aside Manthan and Nishant and others from the parallel cinema — watched and appreciated by a niche audience who are far placed from the ground reality — there are only a few Bollywood movies which tackle caste as a subject.
Surprisingly, Bollywood has many love stories based on rural/urban or rich/poor divides. Some movies have also been made on inter-community (Hindu-Muslim) love stories, but very few with the upper caste/lower caste trope.
One of the very few that came to my mind immediately was Chachi 420. In that film, Kamal Hassan plays the role of a Dalit who marries a woman from upper-caste Hindu Brahmin community (the beauty of the film is that despite being a comedy, it manages to address and redress caste-based prejudices).
Then again, the rich/poor type of movies sometimes have subtle caste references for those who can read between the lines, when an allusion to the “neech khandaan“ of the lover is made by the hero/heroine’s father (always the father). But that is hardly enough to address the elephant in the room.
Anubhav Sinha, Ayushman Khuranna and the entire ensemble cast and crew of Article 15 should be applauded, for not just taking the effort to bring out a movie which directly tackles caste-based violence but also taking it to the mainstream audience. Yes, movies are closer than literature to a majority of us in India, and such things do make a difference.
The movie follows the events taking place in Lalgaon, a small village in the Hindi heartland of India (UP), romanticised at first by the new suave, foreign return, Additional Superintendent of Police (ACP) Ayan Ranjan, till the social fault lines crack wide open.
His subordinates love to narrate the stories from Hindu mythology, especially that of Ram and Ram Rajya, a rationalisation they offer to themselves for the “perfect system of inequality” prevailing in Lalgaon. Untouchability is practised blatantly — shamelessly — and even the urban educated Ayan is expected to partake in it to not “impair the peaceful balance of the village”.
Things change when two 15-year-old girls from the Dalit community are found hanging on a tree one fine morning, 2 days after they had gone missing. A third girl, who was last seen with them is nowhere to be found. Attempts are made to botch the case up — post mortem reports are tampered with and “investigation” is mainly compelling the poor families of the girls to confess it as an “honour killing”, undertaken by the fathers themselves. Nobody wants to admit that the girls were raped and murdered even with ample evidence is produced to support the claim.
The details that are emerging in the Hathras case of alleged police mishandling — from refusal to file an FIR, not provide her with medical aid, inhumanely cremating her in the middle of the night without the consent of family members, has sadly proven that Article 15 took no cinematic liberty to exaggerate the situation, and in fact, the truth is even grimmer than the fiction.
In Article 15, not all the police officers who unknowingly abet the crime are bad human beings or direct perpetrators of the violence. Some are beneficiaries of the system and are not interested in changing a world that suits them so well. Some have rationalised that it is fruitless to make an attempt to bring change, and others are afraid of standing up to the powerful. One police officer who is from a lower caste does not want to associate himself with the dynamics of the case and spoil his prospects, especially after he had painstakingly climbed the ladder.
The film throws up many hard-hitting scenes which portray the reality of rural India, governed by ancient laws and supported by state agencies, and yet manages to end on a hopeful note. In the end, one of four perpetrators gets caught and faces a jail sentence and the missing girl is found after the police lead a manhunt for her. We all know how things ended in real life, in the Badaun rape case on which the film is based on.
How do such brutal, inhuman acts of rape, torture, lynching and beatings continue to take place again and again in our country? These acts are just the extreme ends of underlying invisibilised violence and discrimination that already exists in the lives of a huge chunk of people in the nation.
These extreme acts are so excessive that they spill over to the larger public and sometimes make prime time news. Thus, the entire edifice on which our society operates is itself violent and unequal in the first place, and such extreme incidents are bound to repeat whenever someone tries to defy that order.
In Article 15, the young Dalit girls who work at a tannery factory ask for measly ₹3 wage rise to their contractor. In return, they are slapped on the spot, and later kidnapped, raped and killed. They are punished for the “audacity” of asking for more, of demanding a change in the status quo (aukat) as defined by those who have the means.
We react only to these extreme acts that we are forced to confront, whereas the entire foundation on which this rests, which allows, fosters and normalises the violence and suppression, remains unnoticed and untouched.
Also, where we think there is chaos is an invisible system operating perfectly, in complete synergy, to meet the requirements of the “haves”. Half of us in our cities may think of the Hathras case and the gender and caste-based discrimination in rural India as some other world’s problem. What we forget is that we all want to benefit from the labour that this carefully placed hierarchical structure produces; and we thus, essentially perpetuate the hierarchy.
Having said this, I think getting the perpetrators arrested and punished is not enough — the entire system of patriarchy and caste and its juxtaposition needs to be first questioned and then dismantled. Also, it is the beneficiaries of the unequal system that should be responsible for changing it. The onus cannot always be on the community which is already vulnerable and do not have the adequate resources and means to speak up against it.
Some semblance of justice is achieved towards the end in Article 15 because everyone — the educated urban IPS officer, the local police, young leaders from the aggrieved Dalit community and even his city-based “woke” girlfriend come together in rallying against the system and resolving the case.
Here, our hero is not the one who solves the crime and punishes the culprit and gives a speech. He first battles with his convictions and then through his relentless pursuit of the case manages to stir the conscience of his team.
In real life, we need this unity, and we need this variety of heroism too. It rarely happens though. We are steeply divided as a country to care, except when cases like these awaken us.
Even though the links of gender and caste are apparent in the case, I found one of my acquaintances on twitter asking why there is a “selective outrage” and why the caste of the girl was so “important”.
Enraged, I attempted to reason with him, but he argued that the girl’s caste is used to politicise the issue and to challenge the ruling government and it should be treated like any other case of sexual violence against women.
Firstly, the issue “is political” in the sense that we see an age-old pattern of upper caste, powerful men raping a lower caste woman with little or no agency and then covering up the crime, and being allowed to do that because we live in a society where rape is a tool of punishment to those who challenge the order.
Secondly, of course, the government is accountable and has to answer how things came to such a course. I did not say all these things to him because it seemed pointless to argue with someone who had made up his mind. These people, I gather, are deluding themselves. It’s the same category of those who say #humanlivesmatter and say “gender equality” instead feminism. They miss the point that there are some historically oppressed and marginalised sections of society that need a voice to speak up against the injustice that was specifically perpetrated against them, by a system designed to do so.
I hope that the media takes this chance to redeem itself after their voyeuristic reporting of the SSR- Kangana-Rhea-Deepika series of events and cover the Hathras case meaningfully enough that the truth is brought out to more and more people.
I hope as a civil society we make a loud enough noise till the State Government takes responsibility and compels the police to do their duty. It’s the least we can do.
And finally, I hope more movies like Article 15 continue to be made and seen until it no longer remains an issue that catches our attention only when a young Dalit girl is tortured and killed.