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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Rockstar

Imtiaz Ali’s involvement persuaded me that Rockstar would be worth seeing despite my reservations about Ranbir Kapoor (I’m still bitter after enduring Saawariya and Bachna Ae Haseena). Plus I had a free pass, and a few hours to kill.

There are some things that are outstanding. The visual design, sets and locations are beautiful. I loved the scenes at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah with their beautiful lighting and haunting music, and Ranbir shone in those introspective moments. The songs, which I didn’t particularly like before seeing the film, work a treat. The music and lyrics extend the story and characters, and so do the picturisations. I misted up a little seeing Shammi Kapoor on a cinema screen for my first time. He is Ustad Jameel Khan, a renowned musician who supports and mentors Ranbir’s character. There is a sweet scene as they ‘duet’ on ‘The Dichotomy of Fame’ and I don’t think Ranbir had to try hard to look like he was moved too.

There were even some ridiculous and some beautiful costumes so I was pleased on both counts.

But there are some significant problems, most of which stem from the writing and direction.

Ranbir is Janardhan aka JJ aka Jordan. He is supposed to be a simple innocent boy but comes across as socially retarded, he is a misfit in his slap-happy family, and drifting through college. He is a musician but is told that until he has suffered he can’t be great. JJ decides to fall for the college hot chick so she can break his heart. Despite the stupid premise that manufactured pain equals great art, the dialogue in these early scenes is quite funny and flows well. Eventually JJ and Heer (Nargis Fakhri) become friends. JJ is by turns clueless and a bit manipulative – on the one hand taking Heer too literally at times, but then admitting he fakes being drunk when he goes out partying. They sneak into a tacky soft porn flick, get drunk, and generally work through Heer’s idea of a bucket list before she marries and relocates to Prague.

Jordan, as he is now known, becomes increasingly famous and unhappy.

Ranbir tries, maybe too hard, to break from his usual lightweight charmer persona and is mostly surly. Imtiaz Ali wants us to find Jordan sympathetic but I couldn’t after a point. While I get that he is supposed to be inarticulate away from his music, Jordan is a self absorbed and often aggressive man. Jordan realises he is in love with Heer for real. Kicked out of his unhappy home, and down on his luck, he stays at the dargah. Thrown a life line by college canteen manager Mr Khatana and Ustad Jameel Khan, he is signed by Platinum Records boss Mr Dhingra (Piyush Mishra). With his success growing, Jordan negotiates a gig at a very fake looking Eurojam music festival in Prague – what a coincidence.

He pursues Heer and will not take no for an answer. To be fair, she is sending very mixed signals but it is all about what Jordan wants. He doesn’t exactly force her, but he refuses to accept her ‘No’ and is aggressive in his pursuit. He has no concern about her marriage other than how it gets in his way. Heer succumbs and they have an affair which doesn’t end well. His declarations of love were all about his feelings and desires, how he needed her to make him happy and complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even his band was just a bunch of shadowy blokes up the back of the stage – there was no creative dynamic, no camaraderie. Separated from Heer, Jordan descends further into his morass of self pity and destructive behaviour.

Maybe his vile gold brocade dinner jacket was a sign. They certainly interpreted Rockstar as ‘someone with no dress sense’. JJ wears simple jeans and kurtas when he is with Heer, but gets a bit late era George Harrison meets Frank Zappa on his own. Was that meant to prove he needed her to be a good boy (and remember to wash his hair)? Ranbir did well with the physical transformation of Jordan and his best scenes were probably in the songs where he could just be the Rockstar, demanding the spotlight yet still showing ambivalence about fame and success.

Heer is self absorbed and indecisive, creating most of her own problems. She not only jeopardises her marriage, she is also afflicted with a blood disorder and told she will die. Of course the only cure is Jordan’s Magical Healing Cock. Yes, a doctor may despair but shagging Jordan is all it takes to restore her vitality. Well, until she is further punished for her transgressions by being separated from Jordan (and his MHC) and being made dangerously ill by the resulting pregnancy. Ah the wages of sin. When she collapses, her mother’s reaction is to scream for someone to call Jordan! Yes – like a quickie in the emergency ward would cure Heer. Nargis Fakhri was out of her depth once the love story took centre stage, although her scene joking about eloping with JJ before her wedding was funny and poignant. Heer needed a bit more oomph, less shrieking in place of emoting, and better writing. I’m trying not to mention her collagen plumped lips but they do arrive in shot before the rest of her face a few times, and may contribute to her inability to articulate the dialogue.

Filmi clichés abound, and some are quite clumsy.  If you’re going to hire someone who can’t dance, why introduce them as college hot chick by staging a dance show? There was another misstep with a ’tribute’ to Shammi in Kashmir where Ranbir showed he really doesn’t have any of the panache of his uncle.

The arena style gigs looked good even if Ranbir’s guitar was never plugged in, and the audiences were too well behaved. But then there was no sense of how Jordan created – we see him listening attentively to all these influences and then songs just emerge fully formed.  I would have liked to see more attention given to the musician rather than just worshipping the performer. It might have made Jordan more interesting or likeable.

Had it been a study of the effects of fame on an artist, this might have been compelling. The love story that is supposed to be the core of this film left me cold. I don’t feel I have enough understanding of Rumi to make an informed comment, but my gut reaction was that Imtiaz Ali has missed the point of the quotes he used in his film. I don’t recall Rumi defining love as possession, and that is what this story does. The early friendship is enjoyable, if very unlikely, but just when I should have been wanting them to get together I started to think the opposite. And there are so few other characters in the film to give any relief from this pair. Even the end credits bunch people into his family, her friends, his band…it is all about Jordan and to a lesser extent, Heer. So if you don’t care for their grand romance what else do you have?

The audience I saw the film with was small – maybe 50 people. Several didn’t come back after intermission, and another dozen or so crept out during the second half. Their only cheers were reserved for Shammi-ji and AR Rahman and I think that was about right. Rockstar had a lot of great ingredients, but I was left thinking that with less indulgent writing, a different focus and a bit more editing, it could have been so much better.