Article 15

Article 15

As the opening scenes scrolled across the screen, my first thought was that Anubhav Sinha’s drama was a period piece, but it didn’t take long to realise that the shocking events portrayed are straight out of today’s newspapers. The old-fashioned cars and equally archaic attitudes seem to be a blast from the past, but the reality is that the attitudes and events portrayed in the film are occurring every day, and not just in India either. The film follows new IPA officer Ayan Ranjan as he investigates the disappearance of three girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh. The police are disinterested, largely because the girls are from a lower caste and there is little incentive for them to solve the crime. On the contrary, once two of the girls are found hanging from a tree, there appears to be more gain in framing the girls’ fathers rather than risking their corrupt allies in a full-blown investigation. With an excellent cast, insightful dialogue and an uncomfortable and confronting storyline, Article 15 is a challenging depiction of the problems faced by a large number of people every day of their lives.

Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a young IPA officer posted to Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh, where he is taking over from the retiring long-term incumbent. The film opens with Ayan in his sleek car travelling smoothly towards Lalgaon while he chats on the phone to his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar). He mentions the clean air and how beautiful the countryside is while his driver relates tales from folklore, but his arrival at the village quickly plunges Ayan back into real life. Outside of the cocoon of his car, Lalgaon is far outside Ayan’s previous experience. This is an area where Ayan’s privileged upbringing works against him, where he doesn’t understand the social hierarchy or how deeply local prejudice is entrenched, and where his principles that probably seemed so straight forward in the city, suddenly have to deal with the day-to-day reality of life in rural India. The soundtrack over Ayan’s arrival is Bob Dylan’s blowing in the wind – the words make sense once you realise that this experience will either be the making of Ayan, or it will leave him disillusioned and broken. Either way, he will understand what kind of a man he really is.

Ayan is at loggerheads with the senior police officer Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) almost immediately as the police brush off the families of the missing girls. Gaura’s (Sayani Gupta) sister is one of those the missing and she is able to convince Ayan of the seriousness of the situation, explaining that the missing teenagers had gone to ask for a wage rise of 3 rupees. Ayan is sure that something sinister has happened, but he is hindered by his lack of understanding of the caste system and of how it affects everything in the small community. For him it’s simple: the girls are missing – register the case. But for the police who have to live in the community while senior officers come and go, it’s more about balancing the different factions and appeasing those who are willing and able to pay their bribes. The girls are simply too low in the social order to warrant any notice and worse still, their lives are considered disposable and therefore of no value. The situation gets worse when the bodies of two of the girls are found the next morning and the autopsy shows they had both been raped. Bhramadatt tries to intimidate the doctor (Ronjini Chakraborty) but Ayan gets to her first and manages to secure her support for an investigation which becomes ever more dangerous, eventually leading to Ayan’s suspension and own investigation by CBA officer Panikar (Nassar).

Ayan’s gradual realisation of the true consequences of casteism and the deeply ingrained prejudices is one of the key points of the film. He arrives in Lalgaon aware that issues of caste and inequality exist as abstract injustices that he has read about but which have never touched him personally. But being drawn into the hunt for the men who have raped and murdered the girls, leads Ayan to new realisations and opens his eyes to the hierarchical squabbles all around. Gaura provides Ayan with the information that he needs to begin to understand the deep social divide, while conversations with Jatav (Kumud Mishra), a police officer who himself is a Dalit, and Gaura’s partner, revolutionary leader Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), provide further insights. Nishad is the villagers champion, well-educated and articulate, but unable to gain any ground with the authorities dues to his low caste status. Jatav on the other hand believes in working with the system but is hampered by his colleagues’ inability to see past his low social status.

While Ayan conducts his investigation, events in the background echo real events and provide further evidence of prejudice and discrimination. One of the local politicians is attempting increase his supporter base and gain the Dalit vote by supporting a Brahmin-Dalit alliance. But there is no real benefit for the villagers in his proposed plans and Nishad and his supporters see the alliance as a betrayal of the community rights, leading to clashes and a Dalit strike. This gives one of the most memorable and effective scenes in the film that drives home the truly terrible working conditions for these people. As the strike takes hold the sewage in the police station starts to back up and overflow into the streets. As Ayan arrives one morning, there is a geyser of foul brown water fountaining up into the police yard, which resolves into a man surfacing from the drain with a load of the sewage material that has been blocking drainage. After dumping this he resubmerges. I just couldn’t believe that someone would have to do such a dangerous job without a protective suit, breathing apparatus and a safety line. Honestly, for me this is the most horrific and confronting scene in the film – even more shocking that the hanging bodies of the girls and the later revelations about their murder – mostly because no-one even seems to notice that this man is risking his life in such terrible conditions just to clean out a drain. With this one scene Anubhav Sinha seems to have captured everything that is wrong with the current system, and the murders are simply the extra dressing on the top.

What I like is that Ayan isn’t the all-conquering hero who storms in and solves the issue while the locals watch on dumb-founded. He makes mistakes and at times seems completely clueless about what is happening. It’s the local people who have the knowledge and impetus to find out what happened, Ayan just provides them with an authority to work under and a framework for the investigation. I also like that no-one is pictured as being all good or all bad, but simply as normal people who have their own share of faults (although perhaps Bhramadatt really is just evil!). With Article 15, Anubhav Sinha seems intent on educating his audience, pointing out just how the atrocities we read about can happen when human life is held so cheaply. But at the same time he’s not accusatory nor is he preaching, but rather simply pointing out what is, and then letting us judge these problems for ourselves. Ewan Mulligan’s excellent cinematography adds atmosphere and although Mangesh Dhakde’s background score is at times overly intrusive, for the most part the music is effective.

As someone who has only ever seen India’s caste system from the outside and who has no real understanding of the societal problems, this film is a real eye opener. The everyday situations I have seen when working in medical camps are explained so clearly here, and perhaps this film should be required viewing for anyone planning to travel to India. There is mysticism here along with the undeniable beauty of the countryside that sits uneasily beside filth, corruption and pollution. But the real triumph is in the depiction of the different characters who represent the broad spectrum of society and illustrate that there is some good and some bad in us all. A powerful and well-made film, Article 15 is not easy viewing but it is memorable and incredibly effective in getting its point across. Highly recommended for excellent performances and for shining a light on real social problems that have no easy answers.

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Unda (2019)

Unda

Unda is an understated police drama set in the northern regions of India during an election. Reportedly based on a true story, the film follows a group of policemen from Kerala who are sent to safeguard voting in a remote rural area of Chhattisgarh supposedly under attack by Maoists. Mammootty sheds his star persona in the role of a police sub-inspector and is joined by an excellent support cast of assorted police, local villagers and Indo-Tibetan Border Police. With an under-prepared and inexperienced group of men facing challenges far beyond their previous experience, the film explores the differences that divide India as well as exploring the similarities that should provide unity.

The film starts in Kerala with the police team led by C.I. Mathews Anthony (Ranjith) packing up their equipment and heading north by train. But their problems start when they arrive and find their transport to the camp has been delayed. When it does turn up, instead of buses the men are put into open trucks and taken to the local ITBP camp. But here they find that there isn’t room for all of them, and SI Manikandan (Mammootty) is sent off with his small group of men to a cabin in the woods near to a small village. Once there, the men are confused by the situation and totally oblivious to the differences between their own state and the area they find themselves. Local ITBP officer Kapil Dev (Bhagwan Tiwari) does his best to explain, while his Commandant (Chien Ho Liao) is simply frustrated by their lack of knowledge. To add insult to injury, the team have no supplies. Expecting to pick up ammunition and weapons on site, Mathews and his team are dismayed to learn that all they will have is the equipment they brought. Although they send an emergency request home, it seems unlikely that anything will reach them in time, and there are rumours of Maoists throughout the area.

The police are a disparate group and argue amongst themselves as they are frightened, far from home and disadvantaged by their inability to speak the language. Despite having been a police officer for many years, Manikandan has never had to fire his gun or deal with the kind of sustained tension he has to endure in the camp. His men have their own issues too. One of the police officers has a young wife who is about to have their first baby, while another is constantly on the phone to his new fiancée. Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko) is going through an acrimonious divorce caused by his infidelity. Although he keeps calling his wife, it’s not until he is faced with death that he manages to apologise for his treatment of her, and of course by that time it is far too late. Biju (Lukman) is dealing with prejudice from his colleagues because he comes from a lower caste. Although it’s passed off as ‘joking’, the hurt and alienation that the abuse causes is well portrayed and hopefully will raise some awareness that prejudice is never a ‘joking’ matter.

While Kapil Dev tries to teach the men how to survive in Chhattisgarh by turning off the lights late at night, avoiding mines in the area and keeping a low profile, the local villagers also prove a point of contention. After using up all their water by washing, the police seem totally oblivious to the hardship they have caused. When the local headman Kunalchand (Omkar Das Manikpuri) comes to explain their situation, the police are suspicious and suspect him and his family of being Maoists. But as Kunalchand later complains after his son is taken away by the ITPB and he himself is beaten by masked men, the authorities accuse the villagers of being Maoists, and the Maosits accuse them of collusion with the security forces. Whatever happens, Kunalchand and the villagers will never win and the harsh reality is that they are gradually being forced out of their homes.

When trouble comes, it isn’t Maoists who bring death and destruction – for all the talk, no Maoists are ever seen. Instead it’s corrupt politicians and their thugs who cause the biggest problem and who almost succeed in overcoming the badly outnumbered police force. The lack of support from their own leaders, corruption in the local government and lack of experience of the men themselves all conspire to put the police team in a very precarious position indeed. But it’s their own personal demons that are the biggest barriers they need to overcome.

Unda is a slow burn of a film. Most of the action consists of normal everyday activity such as patrolling the area, getting the camp ready for election day and Mankikandan’s trips back to the ITPB base to follow up on his desperate request for more bullets. Even when there are explosions or gunshots in the night, it’s the reactions of the men that are the focus of the film, rather than the activity in the woods surrounding the camp. In many ways this is more a film about India, but one contained within a tale about a group of Keralan police in a more Northern state. The big issues of language, caste, tribal rights, corruption and terrorism are all brought in to the screenplay as the small group of displaced policemen try to carry out their duties in the most hostile circumstances they have ever faced. The breakdown within the members of the group as they are subject to the constant threat of death from the Maoists and to the contempt of the ITBP is a key point, as is the camaraderie that develops between them as a result of their circumstances. This intermingling of personal issues with the weightier ones of politics and social justice is well done and although there are a few missteps, for the most part the screenplay by Khalid Rahman and Harshad works well. There are well-written moments of comedy and a good blend of personal and group-related drama. Overall, Unda is a good solid drama, well written with excellent performances and directed with a steady hand by Khalid Rahman. Well worth watching and highly rcommended.

Sindhubaadh

 

Sindhubaadh

S.U. Arun Kumar previously teamed up with Vijay Sethupathi for the excellent Pannaiyarum Padminiyum and police-drama Sethupathi, both of which had well developed and slightly off-beat stories with an interesting array of characters. It’s disappointing then, that in Sindhubaadh, he’s come up with a disjointed story and characters who don’t seem to know exactly who they are supposed to be. Thankfully, Vijay Sethupathi is excellent and his presence, along with a strong performance from his son Surya Vijay Sethupathi is enough to keep the first half of the film engaging, but things go rather more pear-shaped in the second half.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thiru, a petty street thief who is hearing impaired. He lives with his adopted son Super (Surya Vijay Sethupathi), although the actual story behind their relationship is shrouded in various tales they spin Thiru’s uncle (George Maryan). Thiru’s lack of hearing allows him to sidestep his uncle’s attempts to sell their house to grab some fast cash and their tussles provide some of the comedy in the first half. Thiru is a pretty laid-back guy who doesn’t seem to have too many problems with his deafness and seems happy to continue on his slightly crooked path through life. Super is a perfect side-kick and his high spirits offset Thiru’s more relaxed approach to life.

Meanwhile Venba (Anjali) has returned from Malaysia where she’s been working in a rubber plantation to pay off family debt. Her family are trying to arrange her marriage but Venba’s loud strident voice puts off potential suitors. For the hearing impaired Thiru though, she’s the one person he can hear easily and he instantly falls in love with her voice. But Venba isn’t interested in marrying a thief, leading Thiru to try and change her mind by the tried and trusted method of stalking and harassment. And, as only ever happens in the world of movies, this tactic works – and now it’s Venba’s family who aren’t impressed with the prospect of a thief for a son-in-law. By this stage though Venba is quite prepared to sacrifice her family for a man she despised only a song or so ago, and she returns to Malaysia just to finish up her job there, promising to be back in a couple of days.

Unfortunately for Venba, the corrupt owners of the rubber plantation where she was employed are involved with a much larger criminal gang. When she arrives back in the country she’s sold to a consortium who are involved in the skin trade, with a more literal meaning than usual. Venba manages to get word to Thiru who sets off for foreign shores using the name Sindhubaadh in his fake passport with Super in tow. But this is where the story starts to break down. There are way too many coincidences that are used to patch over the gaping plot holes as Thiru crosses Thailand and into Cambodia in the search for Venba. Along the way, Thiru just happens to meet people who can both speak Tamil and point him in the right direction, including Vivek Prasanna who is trying to buy back his daughter from the same gang. There’s also a Tamil speaking police-man and the chief villain, Ling (Linga) coincidentally is a Tamilian adopted into the Thai gang.

Ling is a typical caricature of a bad guy who has a big build up as a vicious and remorseless killer, but ultimately ends up fairly ineffectual, resorting to screaming threats and petulant displays of bad temper. The mullet really doesn’t help either. Also strange is Thiru’s sudden emergence as a mass-style hero who can easily vanquish the thugs who stand between him and Venba. He’s a one-man army as he develops sophisticated traps, kills his opponents with a quick twist of the neck and survives everything that is thrown at him. At one point, Super throws a stone at a 4WD which flies through the window, hits the driver and causes the entire car to flip over. And that’s not even the most ridiculous part of that entire scene. It’s just all too much of a change from the easy-going persona of the first half and the continual coincidences just make the story even more ridiculous.

There are some good points though. Despite the clichéd romantic plotline, Anjali and Vijay have excellent chemistry together, and Anjali is good as the capable but loud Venba. It’s unfortunate that she has less to do in the second half, but she excels at looking terrified and at least she does get a chance to fight back. The best relationship though is that of Thiru and Super, and there is a wonderfully joyful camaraderie that shines out of everything they do together. Their father/son dynamic translates well into the story and Surya is developing into a fine actor. His comedic timing in particular is fantastic here, and his cheeky grin perfectly suits his character. In reality it’s this dynamic and the scenes between father and son that keeps the film from total disintegration in the second half.

Another plus point is a brief but well written scene with a prostitute who was one of the women seen working with Venba earlier in the film. She has information for Thiru and unexpectedly S.U. Arun Kumar treats their interaction sensitively with reactions from Thiru that are much more in keeping with his earlier persona. Sadly, it doesn’t last, and we’re quickly back to the mayhem and slaughter, but it does show that there are some good ideas here despite the lack of overall cohesion.

I really wanted to like this film. There is the makings of a decent story hidden under all the unnecessary travels across SE Asia, poorly utilised hearing impairment and extravagant Thai gangster plot. Vijay, Surya and Anjali are all excellent and make their characters engaging despite the inconsistencies in behaviour. It’s also encouraging to see a film about people trafficking that isn’t voyeuristic but gets across the horror of being treated like a commodity and the fear that prevents escape, even if that’s mostly subsumed under the action adventure. Technically too, the film has been well put together and the subtitles by Aarthi are clearly visible and grammatically correct.  What lets the film down is the screenplay which just doesn’t come together once the story leaves India and all the extra threads to the story that mainly just add confusion. Sindhubaadh ends up as a formulaic mass action film that isn’t terrible but doesn’t have any of the magic expected from the pairing of Arun Kumar and Vijay Sethupathi. Worth watching once for the father and son relationship that genuinely lights up the screen.