Anubhav Sinha's Article 15 is a hard-hitting film that tackles the caste discrimination that is rampant in India – and, as this story shows, fatally so at times.
The country is predominantly Hindu, the religion from which the caste system stems. It prides itself in its message that “unity is diversity” and has been the biggest democracy in the world for more than seven decades. The values and rules of the country all stem from the Constitution of India, a book and legal guide drafted by BR Ambedkar (who was from the Dalit caste, but eventually converted from Hinduism to Buddhism and campaigned against caste discrimination).
The film draws its title from Article 15 of this book: this forbids discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
But the reality is that caste discrimination is a malaise that is widespread, especially in the Hindi heartland. This reality is driven home multiple times by the film, with its cast full of stellar performances. In fact, almost every dialogue and performance deserves applause. There are exactly four lines of comic relief, but those are so pertinent and they release the tension which builds with the rest of the scenes, which are dead serious.
Lead actor Ayushmann Khurrana, following on from the success of Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho, plays senior police officer Ayaan Ranjan, who has been partially educated abroad and has to come to grips with the reality of caste discrimination - something he has read mostly about in the media - when one gruesome and unjust murder case lands on his desk.
In real life, Khurrana belongs to the highest grade of Brahmins, and so it the top of the caste order.
Directing and producing this highly sensitive social drama is Anubhav Sinha, who last directed the popular Mulk, which tackled Islamaphobia.
The movie tells a story based in reality, and builds on the 2014 Badaun rape case, in which two teenage women were murdered in Uttar Pradesh. The women were from the Dalit caste, seen as the lowest on the ladder. The police say the women, who were hanged in public, were not raped, however the families to this day insist that they were.
Sinha's plot details the death of two sisters, and the search for their one cousin who goes missing. The case unfolds just as the protagonist cop Ranjan takes charge of his posting in the rural district of Lalganj. As he investigates, he exposes many forms of discrimination: job quotas, untouchability, honour killings over relationships between people from different castes, rape and torture. The film makes the audience really look at how these things play out in society.
There are moments of satire, played out so well by the dependable Kumud Mishra as Jatav, a lower caste police officer and Manoj Pahwa, a senior Brahmdutt Singh from the upper caste.
Apart from Khurrana and his deputies in the police force, stealing the limelight is Sayani Gupta (Gaura) and Zeeshan Ayyub (who plays her love interest, Nishad). Gupta’s expressive eyes handle a range of emotions: she plays a woman in love, and someone who is still hopeful of justice while having to be subservient. She also portrays the emotions of mourning: her three cousins are the victims at the centre of the plot.
Nishad, meanwhile, plays a genius who gave up a bright career to become a rebel leader championing the cause of lower caste Dalits. He gets very few scenes, but his cameo appearance has a powerful presence.
Towards the end of Article 15, we meet a prejudiced officer from the elite Central Bureau of Investigation, played by Nasser, who is threatening to undo Khurrana's investigation. But in the film we see his conscience being appealed to: this will perhaps send a message to the audience, but doesn't feel overly verbose or admonishing.
The most predictable (but still very pertinent) moment comes via a rap that directly speaks to modern India, with the lyrics "let’s make a difference. Shall we begin?"