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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Hichki

Siddharth P Malhotra directed and co-wrote this adaptation of an autobiography by Brad Cohen. While there are absolutely no surprises in this classic underdog story, the film made some changes to the book including making the lead a woman.

Rani Mukherjee delivers a rock solid performance as Naina Mathur, a part time animator who wants to be a teacher. She also has Tourette’s Syndrome. I have reservations about casting non-disabled actors in roles where the character has a disability, and I am all for real representation. But in the Hindi film industry where being visibly different (old, fat, dark, pale, disabled etc) is often the trigger for some very unfunny shenanigans, this film does a pretty good job of portraying Naina as a woman with a neurological condition and a rich and satisfying life, not as a sideshow. I read the director and Rani did quite a bit of work on getting her portrayal of the symptoms right. So is this at least some kind of progress? I tend to think so in this context but of course it is far from the end goal of inclusion and real diversity. It seems so long since Marlee Matlin won her Oscar and yet. Here we are.

Naina wants to be a teacher because she once had a teacher who inspired her, made school a place of acceptance, and helped her accept herself. She wants to be that teacher for other kids and to show that she was herself worthy. St Notker’s needs a teacher for their terrible 9F class, the slum kids nobody wants at the fancy private school. They are desperate and Naina is determined.

Naina lives at home with her brother and mother, in a happy middle class household. Her father left the family, partly because of his own issues at having a disabled child. I love her mum and brother. They seem so affectionate and relaxed. They get her, even though they know she is doing it tough and they can’t fully understand her, they make sure they are there for her.

Naina meets each stupid comment or startled reaction head on and with practiced charm. She has both vocal and motor tics, and Rani modulates the timing and severity to show the effect of stress or high emotion. Her anxiety before interviews, the techniques she uses to minimise or delay her tics, her habitual façade of good humour are all tied to Naina’s life and challenges, not just an acting improv challenge. Rani’s expressions were subtle but conveyed the stress she felt when a tic was imminent and the toll people’s judgements took. When she was in full flight with her class, her tics flowed into the back and forth of their chatter and subsided or became part of her own jokey delivery. Naina’s relationship with her dad (Sachin) is strained as he is ableist and patronising where she just wants to be treated the same as her brother. Their conversations have a grinding banality with none of her customary humour or energy.

The kids were painted much more broadly. There are boys who refuse to trust outsiders, bright girls who could do so much with their lives, the quiet one, the hip hop dude, the nerd who is great at maths thanks to his gambling sideline. All the usual pranks and hijinks ensued. I did appreciate that when middle class Naina took a picturesque stroll through the slum where the kids lived, she saw supportive parents and families who wanted their kids to do well. They may not have turned up at Parent Teacher meetings but it was not for lack of interest. Sure it’s cheesy but I am quite tired of the misery porn genre and I liked that Malhotra didn’t make all of his kids have terrible lives full of dramatic suffering. Class and group dynamics can do as much to hold kids back as outright abuse can. There’s a bit of magical thinking around how disadvantaged children can overcome setbacks by working hard and being positive, but generally the logic was pretty sound if the delivery is a little sugar coated.

Every hero needs a villain, and the honours go to Neeraj Kabi as Mr Wadia. He is a protector of the status quo, a gatekeeper against the influx of undeserving poor. He hates everything Naina stands for, but despite this is one of the few teachers at the school who will actually speak to her. He constantly tries to get her kids expelled and his students, the golden children of 9A, follow his lead. I’d like to make his final speech compulsory viewing for all actors who have to deliver a big emotional capitulation. He nails the emotion but doesn’t get stuck in the cheese.

Although the story was super predictable, the film played with my expectations in a few ways. I had a giggle at Naina’s mum being played by Supriya Pilgaonkar who is maybe 10 years older than Rani, which surely reinforces Rani as a genuine box office Hero. And although Naina’s dad and her student Aatish did have some character development and growth, they weren’t given the red carpet treatment just for catching up to the rest of the world. Instead when it came time for a tangible recognition of excellence, it was the girls who were rewarded for their capability and persistence. I was particularly fond of fiery little Oru (Sparsh Khanchandani) and shy unless he was rapping Ashwin (Benjamin Yangal). The soundtrack by Jasleen Royal is integrated into the drama with just a few montages to hammer the message home. Songs that involve the students tend to have a more improvised and frenetic beat where other songs suit Naina’s introspection and exploration. It’s a shame to have Rani and no big dance number but it just wouldn’t have worked within the film. So it’s just as well they did a promo track to add some colour and movement and hit you over the head with that message again!

I am always keen to see films with great female characters who have agency. I wasn’t blown away by the tried and true story but I was delighted by Rani. It’s also nice to see a film that is gently subversive in a mild and family friendly way. 3 ½ stars!

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota

Vasan Bala takes all the required masala ingredients and tosses them around. And throws in some real talk about love, loss and growing up, wrapped up in offbeat humour, visual gags, movie references, and tons of Hong Kong film style action.

I knew I was probably going to like this film from the get go when the hero flashes back to when he was still in utero…with his parents watching Chiru dancing to It’s A Challenge in Aaj Ka Goonda Raj!

Surya grows up under the care of his dad (Jimit Trivedi) and granddad (Mahesh Manjrekar) after his mother is killed in a bungled theft. He has congenital pain insensitivity and according to the movie medicine, will probably die by the age of 4. So his anxious dad almost literally wraps him in cotton wool. His only childhood friend is Supri, a neighbour who is his opposite in many ways. She never says anything but she feels pain. Her abusive drunk dad is the opposite of Surya’s too. Ajoba feeds Surya a diet of action and masala movies to try and teach him what pain means and how to recognise injuries, and insists that he stay well hydrated. There is some sense in teaching the kid how his body works and what could go wrong but it didn’t help his emotional development. Both kids become obsessed with Karate Man, a one-legged karate master who once beat 100 men in a single fight. Surya believes that life will conform to the rules of films, and he is a hero – the next Karate Man. So when people treat him as a villain, he is bewildered and annoyed. The family moves out of town to his grandfather’s house and Surya loses touch with Supri.

Adult Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) quotes his grandfather who said “Behind every mind blowing story are some pretty bad decisions”. He is an unreliable narrator, often rewriting scenes on the fly or drifting into a filmi fantasy before the world crashes in. He is as influenced by Bruce Lee and the Terminator films as he is by Amitabh and Rajinikanth. And he’s not particularly bright so he is almost guaranteed a succession of mind blowing stories. Dassani has classic chocolate hero looks, an exuberant acrobatic physicality, and an expression of intense innocence that can be hilarious or can make me want to deliver the one tight slap he sometimes needed.

Supri (Radhika Madan) re-enters his life in a beautifully choreographed fight underscored by Kishore Kumar singing “Nakhrewali”. I really loved that rather than race in to take over, he watched her kicking arse and was utterly enchanted by her skills and strength. It took a while for them to recognise each other but Karate Man divided them and brought them back together. Radhika Madan clearly worked hard for this role. She does a lot of physical action and portrays Supri as strong but not invincible, and not just a comedy prop for the men in fight scenes. I liked her performance a lot and found her character a necessary and welcome counterpoint to Surya’s more cartoonish perspective. She is resilient, and a sound thinker who doesn’t carry shame or guilt that isn’t hers to own.

Supri’s life was no fairytale. I cringed to hear her dad tell her boyfriend Atul to just slap her if she was difficult. It so unusual for films to even hint at domestic violence issues that I was pleasantly surprised when Supri and her mum had some real talk. Ma doesn’t want Supri to throw her life away on a bad marriage but Supri is struggling to know what else to do. She doesn’t earn, they need money for medical care, and she simply doesn’t know where to start. Mother and daughter talk about their feelings and the demands of life and there is no drama, just love. Supri says her mum sacrificed to nurse an abusive husband back to health so it is her turn now. But Ma is an interesting woman and she says she can’t break her internal programming to keep supporting her husband, but she doesn’t want Supri to follow in her footsteps. She encourages her to get out and live her own life.

Gulshan Devaiah rounds out the main cast in a brilliant dual role performance. We get the history of Mani and Jimmy in a funky flashback as one becomes a cliché drunk karate master and the other a cliché psychotic villain. How good is this retro funk sound?

Gulshan hits all the right notes in both roles and he commits. I loved his Karate Man style and if there was an award for best use of citrus fruit in a fight sequence, he would win it hands down. Mani is Supri’s mentor although he knows Atul is giving her grief and pushes her away for her own good. He reluctantly acquires Surya as a sidekick on his quest to get the locket back. Jimmy is grandiose, verbose, and constantly disappointed and dismayed by his goons and their lack of style. And when they are together, it’s like they’re both 9 years old again.

The film comes across as a loving tribute to movies and action, not just a piss take. It’s often laugh out loud funny, with a succession of blink and you’ll miss them references. Karan Kulkarni and Dipanjan Guha riff on some classic sounds and the songs are generally well placed. I loved the use of old filmi songs in the background, and the hoardings and murals that featured movie stars. Apart from being lovely it helped fuse Surya’s inner life to the world where this action was taking place. Bala uses some visual gimmicks to allow viewers to be aware of what was going on in real time, but the fight scenes are real and very physical with none of the bad CGI so prevalent. At its heart the movie is full of old school mass goodness.

The movie is on Netflix so you have no excuse. 4 stars!