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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NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.

Thani Oruvan

thani-oruvan.jpg

Thani Oruvan pits a dedicated police officer against a corrupt scientist in psychological thriller that has plenty of drama and action. The writing collaboration between director Mohan Raja and Subha results in a cleverly plotted story with some unexpected twists, but the real success lies in the detailed development of the two main characters. Neither is completely black or white, although the shades of grey are relatively muted, while the cat and mouse relationship between the two provides good structure to the film. Excellent performances from the whole team but particularly Arvind Swamy as the villain of the piece ensure that Thani Oruvan is a better than average police drama and one that’s well worth a watch.

You know a film is going to be pretty epic when the story starts with a dramatic birth. Sengalvarayan (Thambi Ramaiah) is a party man through and through to the point where it’s more important to him that he ties flags for his leader’s appearance rather than take his heavily pregnant wife to hospital. The leader senses an opportunity for some good publicity and sure enough, the baby is born in the back seat of the politician’s car leading Sengalvarayan and his new son Pazhani to develop a relationship with the man who will later become Chief Minister (Nassar). The significance of these events doesn’t become apparent until later on but they provide an instantly intriguing start to the film.

After the dramatic opening, the story moves to a group of young police officers in training and their vigilante-style activities against the local criminal community. Despite the group’s best efforts, the crooks never stay in jail and Shakthi (Ganesh Venkatraman), Suraj (Harish Uthaman), Kathiresan (Sricharan) and Jana (Rahul Madhav) all look to their friend and natural leader Mithran (Jayam Ravi) for a solution. Naturally Mithran has a plan, having spent the last few years investigating all known criminal activity and discovering that all crimes are interlinked and ultimately committed by a small group of individuals. As a result he’s made it his mission in life to eliminate one of these top 15 criminals responsible for all of the crime in India, and of course his buddies want in on the action. He has a shortlist of three possible men to choose from; Ashok Pandian (Nagineedu), Perumal Swamy (Madhusudhan Rao) and Charles Chelladurai (Saiiju Kurup) who between them (according to Mithran) account for 80% of the criminal activity in the country.

Mithran’s biggest problem is which one to choose, although I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t decide to eliminate all three given that he has his whole career ahead of him and could work on knocking off one every 10 years or so. Regardless, while he is working out which one to target, he discovers that all three actually work for a much bigger villain – highly respected scientist and Padma Shri awarded Siddharth Abimanyu (Arvind Swamy). Siddharth is known for his work in the pharmaceutical field but in reality he’s the mastermind behind all sorts of criminal activity and not a nice man at all, despite his designer suits, fashion model wife and impressive collection of University degrees.

Siddharth is of course the grown up young boy from the start of the film and his inept father is now the Health Minister in Nassar’s government, allowing Siddharth to do basically whatever he wishes. Mithran and Siddharth cross paths when an American drug company owner comes to India to open access to lifesaving medications – something that Siddharth and his associates will go to any lengths to prevent. Once Siddharth becomes aware of Mithran and his attempts to put him out of business, the contest between the two begins in earnest with each determined to eliminate the other no matter what it takes.

The characterisations are the key here and while Mithran doesn’t have all the answers he uses a methodical approach and informed reasoning to work out what Siddharth will do next. Almost too good to be true, Mithran is depicted as a dedicated and passionate police officer with a strong sense of social justice, who is almost hyper-aware of crime in his surroundings. However as he gets drawn into a battle of wits with Siddharth his obsession threatens to take over his life while his friends and allies become tools to use in his fight. His motto is that a man’s capability is defined by the quality of his enemies and by that measure he needs to be very capable indeed. Mithran’s passion for justice is what makes him get out of bed in the morning, so he has none left over for potential love interest Mahima (Nayantara) and as time goes on, little patience to deal with his friend and colleagues either. These shades of grey give Mithran more credibility and offset his tendency to indulge in pompous and long-winded speeches about truth, justice and the rights of all to obtain cheap pharmaceuticals when required. Jayam Ravi is perfectly capable as Mithran but he is very serious and it would have been good to see an occasional smile outside of the obligatory song with Mahima.

Siddharth is a more cerebral villain than usual and uses his political influence to neutralise any threat from Mithran while his quick reactions and scientific knowledge also stand him in good stead to outwit the police officer at almost every turn. He doesn’t throw tantrums, swear vengeance or send out gangs of thugs as Tamil criminal masterminds are wont to do, instead he simply adapts, moves on and changes direction.

Arvind Swamy is excellent as the criminal mastermind, with the beauty of his characterisation lying in just how very ordinary his Siddharth is. He’s rich  – designer suits, trophy wife and beautiful house all attest to how wealthy he is, but on the surface he could be any scientist working on medical breakthroughs with no indication of how cruelly callous he can be when required. Those moments when he casually orders someone’s death or explodes into controlled violence are almost totally unexpected and seem to come out of nowhere, making Siddharth a very effective and chilling villain despite his generally debonair persona.

Nayantara’s character Mahima is interesting too. On one hand she’s the typically dumb love interest who thinks that by following the hero around and declaring her love at every eventual opportunity she will eventually wear him down – and to be fair that is what happens here too. But on the other hand, she’s a forensic scientist who has some good ideas to help Mithran’s investigation, and appears coolly capable and professional in her work. If only Mohan Raja had avoided the ‘love at first sight’ cliché and given Mahima and Mithran a more plausible and realistic romance I would have liked her character more. But Nayantara does give Mahima professional competency and a no-nonsense approach most of the time that fits well with the overall tone of the film.

The rest of the cast are good with Thambi Ramaiah providing some laughs as an inept politician, but mainly giving a further insight into the character of Siddharth. Rahul Madhav is the best of Mithran’s friends, Vamsi Krishna is suitably menacing as Siddharth’s hitman, while Mugdha Godse is good in her brief but important role as Siddharth’s wife. The film looks good too, with effective use of split scenes and an effective mix of technology and good old-fashioned fight scenes. There are a few leaps of faith required but they aren’t too ridiculous and mostly the plot makes sense.

Thani Oruvan is an intelligent thriller with a good mix of action and drama and excellent characterisations. It is a little overlong, but the story keeps moving along at a good pace and like any good page-turner it’s always worth finding out what happens next. Worth watching for Arvind Swamy’s villainous scientist and the psychological cat and mouse game between Siddharth and Mithran. 4 stars.