Seen Yet Unseen Faces Around Us

Film Review: The film, Article 15, is a tribute to those who do not wait for Superheroes! And it attempts to depict much layered socio-political state of our time.

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Sayani Gupta, Isha Talwar, Ayushmann Khurrana

Article 15 is not a Dalit film. It is not a film of the Dalit, by the Dalit or even for the Dalit. The film is probably meant for the upper middle class, who often claim that the caste system is a matter of the past or incidents that happen very far away from their lives. Let us not compare this film with Masaan or Sairat or Kaala or Pariyerum Perumal (Tamil). Their sensibilities are way different! This is an educational film, wherein the protagonist, a Brahmin upper middle class officer, gets educated about the intricate way that caste manifests in everyday life. He too believed that the caste did not matter to him until then. The journey helped him ponder on many things which he would otherwise probably not have thought about. The success of the film, I believe, is that many viewers would tend to travel the journey along with the protagonist and learn about caste on their way. Irrespective of our caste, class or religion, there is something which makes everyone in the upper middle class segment identify with the protagonist, from clothing to lingo to humour. Some of the many takeaways from this film for an average viewer are:

First, the film reminds us of the stereotyping that we tend to do most of the time. Isn’t it true that we use the term ‘woh log’ (those people) very often? At several instances in the film, the police officials use the term, ‘woh log’, to justify their inaction with respect to the criminal case, where three Dalit girls were victims. It did remind us of many such drawing room discussions that we have had on many problems—wherein we refer our domestic helpor agricultural labourer in our farm or the press wala, who irons our clothes, or the vegetable vendor—not as individuals but as ‘those people’. These ‘woh log’ are Dalits sometimes, Adivasis at other times, slum dwellers for some and homeless for others, Muslims for some or domestic workers for others. A stereotype wrapped into a secular term—‘woh log’—just to take them away from the real social context where they are! We have othered them—to say, they are not going to change; they are vote banks; they are living off government subsidies; and that they cannot be us, and most importantly, every time we talk about them, we usually mean that they are ‘lower’ than us—either in status or wealth or morality. Let us just accept it as casteism, most of the time.

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Second, the film makes a point that while we have ‘othered’ them, we do need them. The least to clear the filth! The entire scene of garbage not getting collected owing to the strike by Dalit workers or the face of the sanitation worker divingdown an open sewer to unclog the drain by removing sludge gives the message that the community which is othered is still the backbone of the task of keeping the city clean. They need to be accepted as an integral part of our society, for we are not going to be ‘them’, for their work is not going to be our work.

It means they need to be there to sweep the street, to clean the drains, to remove carcasses and to go down the drain.

And we would get all this done by giving them a pittance. Yet we deny them the dignity of labour. That should remind us of the recent news about the Brahmin Only Township, the Shankar Agrahara Vedic Village complex, where the marketing manager states, “To own property, any one member of the family has to be a Brahmin. The domestic staff and the workers could be non-Brahmins, because we cannot do that much screening. The Brahmins will not sweep roads anyway. We will have to understand that there are some restrictions within the community as well”. This is a by-product of our everyday casteism, where we probably appreciate them for protecting our tradition and culture!

Third, the film depicted a crime which is basically a corporate crime. Three women workers sought Rs. 3 rise in their daily wage. They were threatened for going on strike. They were raped and killed. When the contractor was asked the question about the wage, he says, ‘हमारेयहांकामकरनेवालोंकीऔकातवहीहोतीहै, जोहमतयकरतेहैं’ (In our place, workers have the status what we fix). Everyone has some or other status. And when asked why he killed them, the contractor answered, ‘उन्हेंउनकीऔकातदिखानेकेलिए’ (To show ‘them’ their status). The tannery workers who deal with carcasses hail exclusively from Dalit castes, and the job contractor hails from the dominant caste reproducing the same social relations even in the market space. Those who believe that the product that has a big brand name is free from casteism, should remind themselves that the modern form of slavery in market places has integrated the caste system and is the backbone of the basic tier of any supply chain in India. And from the last tier of the supply chain, caste travels through to the boardroom. The Authors D. Ajit, Han Donker and Ravi Saxena inspected the boards of India’s top 1,000 companies. Out of 9,052 board directors, 8,204 are Vaishya or Brahmin, who together are not even 7 percent of the Indian population! Think again, has our ‘aukaat’ in the industry not been determined by our caste?

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Why are things not changing? Someone has to disturb this balance of power. Is it not the role of the State? In the film, a government official tells his superior, ‘Aap se nivedanhai Sir, santulan mat bigaadiye!’ (I have a request, sir. Do not disturb the balance). This was not a request; it looked more like a threat of the entire power of society. The maintaining of the current balance of power is actually considered as the default role of the State. The entire struggle between the statusquoist, law and order state versus the developmental state, which wants to alter the power relationship, is the core story of the film. ‘Santulan’, the balance, is all about multiple dominant forces trying to maintain its equilibrium, which is of course not equal for everyone. Who would be made responsible to maintain this ‘Santulan’, whenever it gets threatened? Dominant society looks for heroes or creates the need for superheroes. Avatars in an otherwise Advaitic Hinduism area reflection of the need for ‘Santulan’—guardians, who claim to protect tradition but usurps power.

The film mocks the thought, ‘Hero nahin chahiye, bas aisey log chahiye jo hero ka wait nakarein’ (We do not want a hero, we need people who do not wait for a hero).

The contradiction of a society ridden with caste hierarchies looking for heroes but also following the system of democratic polity is stated in two dialogues—‘Sab barabarhogaye to Raja kaunbanega? (If all turn equal, then who would be the king?) And the reply, ‘But why do we need a king at all’?

The challenge for many privileged caste directors, other than K. Balachander, is to end the film without succumbing to mass appeal. In this film as well, the climax seems to have killed the soul of the film. The protagonist becomes a Hero. There was no need for the protagonist to carry the girl with his own hands or to portray the Dalit activist showing her gratitude towards the Hero at the end. If you do not watch the last five minutes of the film, it would have been a finest tribute to those citizens who do not wait for Superheroes!