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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Margarita, With a Straw

 

Margarita, With a Straw

Shonali Bose’s 2014 film follows Laila (Kalki Koechlin) as she navigates her way through the usual rites of passage that mark the transition to adulthood. The difference here is that Laila has cerebral palsy and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. It’s rare to find a story about a disabled protagonist that’s not about overcoming great adversity, but Margarita with a Straw is simply a look at Laila’s life as she navigates her way through college. Laila may have some physical limitations, but her dreams and desires are those of any young person and she doesn’t let her disability stand in her way as she moves to New York to go to college, embarks on a same-sex relationship and starts to take control of her life. The film does have a few flaws, but with strong performances from Kalki Koechlin and Revathy, and a generally upbeat approach, it’s definitely well worth a watch.

Bose based her story on her cousin who also has cerebral palsy and the film was made in consultation with an Indian based disability agency, ADAPT which ensures the situations seem true to life. The issues Laila faces are mainly due to problems with accessibility, such as when the lift at her college isn’t working and she needs to be carried upstairs, or when her wheelchair gets bogged down in the snow in New York. For the most part Laila is a regular student and her family encourage her independence, seeing her disability as just part of Laila rather than as a liability that will hold her back.

Laila is a student at college in Delhi where she has a number of friends. Sameera (Shuchi Dwivedi) plays guitar for a rock band and Laila writes lyrics for their songs, partly because she loves music but she also has a crush on the lead singer Nima (Tenzin Dalha). However, when she reveals her attraction, his awkward response devastates Laila to the point where she feels she cannot continue at college. Luckily for her, at this point she receives an offer to study in New York and over the objections of her father, but with the support of her mother, Laila moves to the US and a new chapter in her life.

While at home Laila experimented with her developing sexuality, including surfing pornographic websites, masturbating and becoming intimate with her friend Dhruv (Hussain Dalal) who is also in a wheelchair. All of this is shown in a very matter of fact way and I can’t remember any Indian film dealing with developing sexuality in such a realistic manner, let alone one that approaches it from the viewpoint of someone with a disability. The film deserves recognition for that as well as the authentic manner in which the friends interact. Dhruv broaches the idea that Laila has ‘normal’ friends simply to try and ‘fit in’, but Bose shows her isolation as the group chat and jam outside while Laila is left alone inside in her wheelchair. These scenes are sensitively handled without ever showing Laila as self-pitying or becoming overly sentimental, which makes the situations realistic and plausible. Also well done is the reaction of Nima when faced with Laila’s attraction which seems completely typical of any adolescent when faced with a declaration of love from someone they like, but are not attracted to in a romantic way. Although these are small moments, the film is made up of many such scenes which ensure the story is about Laila and not about her disability.

Laila’s move to New York brings her into contact with an attractive fellow student Jared (William Mosely) but this time Laila is more careful after her experiences with Nima despite Jared’s seeming interest in her. However, Laila then meets Khanum (Sayani Gupta) after getting mixed up in a demonstration and their friendship develops into an intimate relationship. Khanum is blind and Sayani Gupta is good in her portrayal of someone who cannot see, but unfortunately for the most part, her character is superficial and poorly developed. Khanum appears to exist only as a means to allow Laila to explore her independence, and their relationship generally feels clunky and odd.

The film is most successful in exploring the family relationships, particularly Laila’s relationship with her mother (Revathy). Laila’s desire for independence and privacy ensures there are moments of conflict, while Revathy is excellent as a mother trying to reconcile her need to protect her daughter with the realisation that Laila needs space to grow. Towards the latter half of the film Bose tries to cram too much in to this relationship including an unnecessary illness and a rather forced scene where Laila reveals her bisexuality to her mother, but where she keeps it simple it makes for some excellent and emotional cinema.

Kalki Koechlin does an amazing job with her portrayal of someone with cerebral palsy although it does seem a shame that there wasn’t a disabled actor playing the role. The level of disability she portrays does fluctuate a little throughout the film, but overall her body language is good and convincing while the emotional highs and lows are well done.  My DVD includes a ‘making of’ which does give some insights into the difficulty of portraying the character, and it’s to Kalki’s credit that she has invested so much time into getting her characterisation of Laila right. Revathy is also excellent while the rest of the supporting cast are also good. Kuljeet Singh doesn’t have much to do as Laila’s father, but he is fantastic in the emotional scenes near the end and really impresses by how well he conveys strong emotions so subtly.

Overall, Margarita, With a Straw is an unconventional film that may be a tad uneven but succeeds due to the excellent performances and strong emotional content. Bose paints a sympathetic picture of a young woman with cerebral palsy without dwelling on the disability, but rather focusing on the issues that everyone faces as an adolescent, whether able-bodied or not. Laila’s journey towards acceptance, by her family and by herself, is often funny, frequently emotional but always engaging. 4 stars.

Margarita, With a Straw