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.

Advertisements

Ra.One

Ra.One seems predominantly aimed at older kids, so I fall well outside the target demographic. But it was interesting to contemplate Shah Rukh, the father, as I watched him play a nerdy dad who wanted to do something his son would find really cool. And I think perhaps, Ra One is the thing he made for his own kids. As with almost all things parents do to try and impress their kids, it doesn’t entirely succeed and despite being well intended, can be cheesy and embarrassing. There are daft antics, crotch kicking jokes, bad hair and the occasional detour into gross humour or sleaze that – I know this will shock you – didn’t always entertain me. But a few things were just delightful and hit the spot.  

I avoided most of the pre-film promotion as I thought low expectations would be the key to enjoying it. Those expectations were raised almost immediately by the opening sequence – a very amusing filmi pastiche set inside a computer game. Priyanka Chopra (as Desi Girl) and Sanjay Dutt (as Khalnayak) were excellent at what I hope was intentionally bad acting, and SRK was very funny as a kind of Goth styled sword wielding Fabio. It was tongue-in-cheek, with lots of action and stunts, plus silly puns and recycled film dialogue. Sadly my hopes were dashed almost as quickly when the comedy began.

Shekhar Subramanium (SRK) is a Mr Bean type fool in a dodgy wig who creates havoc everywhere he goes. His son Prateek (Armaan Verma) – a child in desperate need of a decent haircut and a swift boot up the backside – is embarrassed by his loser dad. Shekhar is a successful (based on real estate as the family home is lovely) game designer and tries to make a game that his son will like. This section draaaaaaaaags on. It is clear that the son is a brat and the dad is sweet but misses the point. Kareena Kapoor as wife Sonia tries to keep the peace but the first half is more about the father son dynamic.

Prateek tells his dad to make a game where the villain can never lose, because villains are cooler than heroes. And so we come to the action at last. The science behind how the villain Ra One can escape his game is explained by a bit of hand waving and muttering of ‘digital rays’. That didn’t bother me as I think had there been a more rigorous scientific basis for the story it would have been even longer and even more plot holes would have emerged. Once Ra One emerges in the real world, the film becomes an action superhero flick and I was much happier.

Ra One is an evil entity and determined to finish off his first opponent from the game – Prateek – for good. Shekhar sacrifices himself to save his son, but he doesn’t exactly disappear from the film. Every villain needs a hero in opposition and G One represents the life force in the game. Shekhar programmed G One with his own values and equipped him with some favourite proverbs, part of his gift to Prateek. G One bears a physical resemblance to his creator but has much sleeker hair, blue contact lenses and a flash rubbery suit.

Ra One eventually settles into the form of a bare chested Arjun Rampal and the final showdown is inevitable. Arjun Rampal just has to posture and flex, which he does well, and he was certainly menacing. Ra One’s arrival in India was brilliant and loaded with symbolism, but that wasn’t carried through.

Evil versus good, death or life, emptiness versus selflessness. As with the science, Anubhav Sinha shies away from delving into those concepts. I’m not sure that would have made this a much better film, but I do think there was room to expand on some of the ideas and give a heightened sense of consequence when Ra One faced G One.

G One’s relationship with Sonia and Prateek is mostly played for laughs but there are some moments of ‘what if’ as the grieving family look for Shekhar in his creation. The film effectively navigated the relationship between the boy and his father/hero and wasn’t too syrupy. Shekhar’s death was discussed in plain terms, and while G One was comfortingly familiar (and kind of cool) he wasn’t just a vessel for the return of Shekhar.

Kareena was most effective in he second half, especially in her scenes with Shah Rukh and seemed more real when relating to him rather than the child. It says something that a scene involving nasal contents and ending with SRK saying ‘Like it? Keep it!’ could also have some underlying sexual tension. And be funny. The role was a mix of filmi Ma and minx that let her look glam and show some dramatic range. This was a solid performance that showed her off to good advantage.

Shah Rukh is more effective as the slightly robotic G One than as the exuberant Shekhar but that may just be my prejudice against the comedy wig talking. His acting was sometimes surprisingly restrained for a broad action entertainment like this. The scene where Shekhar sacrifices himself was quite moving, and all due to the change of expression in Shah Rukh’s eyes. He covers the gamut from slapstick to deadpan comedy and gave G One a slightly off tempo rhythm to his speech and movements. SRK seems to delight in uncle dancing or cheesy retro dance moves, and there are some excellent bad dance moments, including a Michael Jackson tribute. The pleather pants in that scene made me wish that he would get back on the carbs – he’s looking very thin, maybe as a result of wearing the rubber G One suit for months.

The Vishal-Shekhar music is pretty forgettable, although the picturisations looked OK. The choreography tended towards the inappropriate but I guess if you’re a 13 year old boy it would be just dandy. And I appreciated the shiny underpants on the girls in Chammak Challo as attention to detail is always a good thing, especially when there is so little fabric to go round.

While I found the choreography for ‘Criminal’ skanky (although par for the MTV course), there was something endearing about SRK trying to pop his non-existent booty. I was a bit distracted by the triangular slit cut into Kareena’s miniscule skirt that made me hope she had also been allocated appropriate underwear.

Tom Wu was a stand out in the supporting cast. I am not sure why a Chinese character had a Japanese name (Akashi) but whatever. Just don’t call him Jackie Chan! I loved his flubbed lip synch in ‘Criminal’, and he got to show off a bit more than just being a sidekick. Satish Shah was his usual ebullient comedy uncle type. The special appearance that got the biggest cheer was of course Rajnikanth! He did look a little frail and I hope he is resting up and getting ready for his next film.

The VFX are good and are well integrated into the action.  The gaming style is maintained in the way the characters move, their fights and the fast edits. It’s certainly a quality film in terms of production values. The fight scenes are excellent, my favourite being the South style showdown with machete wielding rowdies. The script could have used some work, and the first half could easily lose 30 minutes. The wardrobe department were clearly in control of a reasonable budget, but sometimes had no idea how to use it other than by throwing more stuff into the mix. This will give you a  sample of the visual delights that await.

Expect a mass entertainment aimed at adolescent boys and you’ll be in the right frame of mind to enjoy this for what it is. Yes it takes the shallow option on many questions, but it’s a superhero genre film. Would I really take life advice from men in rubber suits? 3 stars!