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Article 15 And Dangal Are Hardly As ‘Anti-Caste’ And ‘Feminist’ As We Think. Here’s Why.

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I have always been a fan of good movies because I believe good stories influence you in more than one way.

So, when my friend told me that the then recently released “Article-15” was going to be a watershed moment for Indian cinema with its progressive plotline and hitherto untouched theme of caste discrimination, I went ahead and watched it. I stuck to my seat, along the entire duration, hoping to unravel and celebrate what others touted as an “anti-caste” movie.

That it was a well-meaning movie was doubtless but I was disappointed by the generic typecasting of characters as well as the misnomer of “anti-caste” attached to it. However, it wasn’t the first time I had fallen for a media trick.

Ayushmann Khurrana Article 15

A couple of years back, an acquaintance of mine, aware of my interest in feminist movies recommended me to watch the Aamir Khan starrer “Dangal”.

Halfway through the movie, the realization dawned that Dangal at best could be called “women-centric” because of its plot revolving around the stories of two girls who go on to become wrestling icons but the movie was hardly feminist.

Both of these movies aren’t isolated examples of the absence of any informed narrative on gender and caste in Bollywood but a smaller piece of the larger picture that shies away from talking about difficult topics.

Article-15 and Dangal, both well-made films, could easily be ranked as the two of the most progressive movies that Bollywood has produced in recent years. The former portrays the story of an IPS officer belonging to the Brahmin community, posted in rural hinterlands and his journey of exploring the caste structures in villages and how it discriminates against castes that are on the bottom rung of the perceived hierarchy.

The character of Kishan Jatav, a constable belonging to the “chamaar” community is played by Kumud Mishra, a Brahmin.

Why Article 15 Is Not As Progressive As We Think It Is

The plot hinges around the gang-rape of “lower caste” girls by their employers for demanding a hike of three rupees in their salary. Consequently, Ayan Ranjan, the IPS officer brings to justice, the perpetrators and in the process, realizes the evils of caste-system.

I had two issues with the film. First, the protagonist and the “saviour” belonged to the same community that inflicted the horrors in the first place. Second, the character of Kishan Jatav, a constable belonging to the “chamaar” community is played by Kumud Mishra, a Brahmin. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a capable actor, movies based on issues like caste should have actors who have lived experiences of being at the receiving end of the same.

Further, the film tries to minimize the evils of caste to villages alone, assuming that it is so, because of lack of modern education. In reality, caste-based discrimination is a rampant problem in state of the art, modern-day higher education institutes too as is exemplified by the deaths of Payal Tadvi and Rohith Vemula.

Ayan, a serving IPS officer, apparently has no understanding or knowledge of the concept of caste before he arrives at the place of his posting. Where an anti-caste movie would have demanded strong characters from the oppressed communities vying for equality, all the movie manages to have is a feeble, half-hearted activist in the form of Gaura.

The problem is not only the glorified saviour complex but also the lack of empowered women characters from the marginalized communities. We see two women in the movie – Gaura, an activist from the community the girls are abducted from and Aditi, an academician and a scholar who happens to be Ayan’s wife. Gaura is portrayed as a feeble, almost too polite to be a real activist who endeavours getting justice for the wronged girls by appealing to the police despite getting snubbed repeatedly.

Aditi, on the other hand, is shown as an independent woman who is making a difference in the lives of people through her work. That Gaura’s lack of fame and success is due to her constant dehumanization is completely ignored. Both women characters are viewed through the same age-old lens of “universal sisterhood” which, in turn, pushes the narrative of any intersectional commentary out of the scene.

Article 15
That Gaura’s lack of fame and success is due to her constant dehumanization is completely ignored.

Where a nuanced take on the lived experiences of Gaura and her double oppression on account of being a woman from a marginalized community could have been shown, the movie chose to focus on making her an aide and interest of Nishaad, the movie character inspired by Chandrasekhar Azad ‘Ravan’.

As the movie ends, we see Ayan turning into the knight in shining armour and clinching justice for Pooja, the third girl who is missing. The film hardly acknowledges or brings into the spotlight, the institutionalized casteism or the privilege that Ayan himself has.

All the movie manages to do is show the extreme ended effects of caste discrimination in a rural setting, thus confirming the bias of privileged, urbanized, middle-class individuals that casteism is a problem that takes place where the poverty is abject and the education levels, minimum.

Now, Look At Article 15 Viz A Viz ‘Twelve Years A Slave’

Contrast this with the Academy Award-winning movie “Twelve Years A Slave”. The film explores the journey of a free black man in America and his consequent abduction into slavery, his experiences throughout the 12 years when he is in captivity and ultimately, his emancipation. The lead character Solomon Northrup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor brilliantly with equally scintillating performances by Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender.

All of the white actors in the movie are excellent artists no doubt but the lead is played by a man who belongs to the affected community himself. It’d be easier to understand what I am saying by imagining a white actor playing the lead character – absolutely unthinkable, right?

The character of Brad Pitt, who is a carpenter and staunchly anti-slavery, is nuanced as he espouses his thoughts saying while he abhors slavery, he would probably never know the horrors the system inflicts on the people of colour because of his privilege. Extrapolating the data of actors and characters belonging to “lower castes” in this single movie, it is easy to imagine what the rest of Bollywood has to offer.

Throughout Dangal, the agency of the two girls to choose anything for themselves is continuously ignored while glorifying their father’s choice to have them train for professional wrestling.

Dangal

Take the example of Dangal. Throughout the entire film, the agency of the two girls to choose anything for themselves is continuously ignored while glorifying their father’s choice to have them train for professional wrestling. An oft-cited excuse is that in a patriarchal society where girls are never allowed to get into male-dominated arenas like sports, their father at least encourages them to do it instead of marrying them off.

The bar is set so low for women empowerment that even basic deviance from the norm, to fulfil the father’s unfinished dream of his youth, is seen as emancipatory for the girls.

On the other hand, shows like Sex Education and Anne with an E have nuanced, well-rounded characters that discuss topics like bodily autonomy, sexual independence and kickstart an important conversation. Moreover, a majority of films produced by “mainstream” Bollywood entail casting of women as eye-candies, objectification through item songs and a good share of the movies that do not pass the Bechdel Test. The audience is to blame, too.

That a medieval film like Kabir Singh grossed crores while a good percentage of the film-goers do not even know of “Ijazaat” (consent) reflect the misplaced priorities of the largest demographic in the world.

As Om Puri’s character in the 1984 movie Party says, “Art has no value if it is not politically committed”. It is pertinent that the movies that Bollywood produces these days try to push the conversation regarding socially relevant issues like caste and gender forward.

The portrayal of transgender characters as three dimensional and essayed by members of the same community can be a good step in the direction. Intersectional issues of caste and gender and their portrayal is the need of the hour. Movies and other forms of visual arts naturally have a greater impact on the audience. Progressive filmmakers should look toward making movies with greater nuance.

In such a situation, fresh and yet unexplored ideas can help build an inclusive society. A narrative of intersectional issues such as gender being exacerbated by caste or vice versa should get the centre stage in the twenty-first century progressive world where medieval forms of institutional oppression are being protested against.

Either way, caste and gender form the core of the Indian society and pervasive ideas regarding them should make more headway than it is, currently.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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