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Article 15 is one of the few movies in commercial Bollywood cinema in recent times that talks about caste. However, it talks about caste using specific lingo and tropes that sit well with the world view of the urban, savarna, multiplex-frequenting, post-liberalization middle class. Far from triggering discomfort in their accumulated privileged world, the movie in its chilling Netflix thriller-esque style presents a caste-crime that can happen only in ‘lawless’ rural India, in ‘the wild wild west’, where the urban, brahmin and globally-exposed protagonist, Ayaan Ranjan, is transferred to as ‘punishment’. Caste to him, and overall in the movie, is what a ‘messy’ rural India is dealing with (except a one-liner from the protagonist’s urban-activist girlfriend that her mother used to use separate dishes for the lower caste domestic help).

As many reviews already pointed out, the movie presents, quite unsurprisingly for a Bollywood commercial venture, an upper caste protagonist, a saviour of Dalits. What is important to notice here, however, is that he is not just any upper caste who features in the typical good brahmin cop-bad brahmin cop binary. The director, Anubhav Sinha, in his response to the critique of the savarna saviour-narrative, explained that it is important to show an upper caste protagonist question the caste arrangement in society more than a Dalit protagonist as it is easier for the oppressed to question the source of oppression than the oppressor. Notwithstanding the (perhaps intended) simplicity in this response, what Sinha seemed to have excelled at is to understand the consumer demand for savarna-saviour narrative. His savarna protagonist is someone who clears the meritocratic and hence, much respected, public service examination with ease and elan (unlike his friend who could not even after multiple attempts) to fulfil his IFS papa’s dream. The awe-inspiring validation that a savarnaprotagonist gains through this meritocratic narrative from the savarna middle-class audience is difficult to attain by a Dalit protagonist as the shadow of the middle class’s most dreaded ghost of Reservation would be lurking behind his IPS identity. Making the middle-class cheer for a Dalit IPS would involve making them realise the importance of Reservation and that is not an easy task. Rather it is way easier to make a mockery of Reservation by showing the characters of the SC/OBC policemen in Ayaan’s team competitively and enviously asking each other about the share of benefits their respective quota offers. It is also easy to make the audience laugh by showing an old and gawky sub-inspector from the Jatav caste, played by Kumud Mishra, a brahmin, run away as he fails to understand what Ayaan’s swear words in English means as Ayaan vents the frustration of not being able to understand the complexity of the subcaste dynamic in Uttar Pradesh.

Caste is presented as a riddle, a case, where two Dalit female bodies hanging from the tree in the early morning fog and in a half dark rural backdrop, a ‘messy’ mystery waiting to be solved by the woke hero who wants to prove his worth to his ‘activist type’ girlfriend, Aditi. Aditi later apologizes for wanting to turn him political and asks him to follow his own conviction. The suspicion, disregard, and demonization of the political seem to be a recurring theme in recent Bollywood movies dealing with the caste in some form or the other. ‘Newton’ released in 2017 is an example of this although Newton does portray a Dalit protagonist, albeit with the blink and miss markers of his Dalitness on screen. Despite a symbolic allegiance to the constitution and duty of civil service present in both ‘Newton’ and ‘Article 15’, the proclaimed inefficacy of party politics and electoral democracy in both the movies resonate well with the savarna middle-class sentiment that deems politics as dirty, messy and a facade. An argument that social science scholarship makes about the New middle class and their suspicion and mockery of electoral democracy being corrupt and misused by the poor (Fernandes 2006, Corbridge & Harriss 2000) comes up, quite expectedly, as Ayaan gets into the dirty water, which he calls the ‘keechad’that even the brahmin has to get into some time to fight social evil. He asks his subordinates of different castes who they vote for and the answers revealing their caste identity determining their choice of political party appear to be a laughing matter, reducing identity politics to a matter of joke.

The meritorious bureaucrat’s individualized goodwill as opposed to the projected pointlessness and inefficacy of collective Dalit activism appears to be the key to resolve all problems. No questions asked about the structural problems shaping a caste driven political economy or why Dalits are the wage labourers except for the dramatized lecture of Ayaan to his superior about the demand of Rs 3 extra wage that the Dalit girls were raped and murdered for. Dalit activism shown in the movie, drawn from the politics of Bhim Army and their leader Nishad based on Bhim Army leader Chandra Sekhar Azad Ravan appear to be almost reckless, disorganized and infantile entities where Ayaan with zero knowledge in politics can be condescending to Nishad and has the authority to convince him to send the protesting manual scavengers back to work. Established Dalit parties are shown equally opportunist as the brahmin ones fitting into a classic elite and anti-electoral sentiment that all parties are immoral and corrupt, and thus negating the history of electoral democratic assertion of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. Moreover, the reckless Dalit leader Nishad had to die with regrets but the brahmin top-cop marched on with his entourage (almost resembling the citizen’s search marches shown in thrillers based on western country sides) to rescue the missing Dalit girl. Gaura, the fiercely political sister of the victim who was raped by the policemen, folds her hands in gratitude to the IPS and his team. Her right to justice is their mercy!

Article 15, thus, revolves around the middle-class friendly trope of the urban savarna male bureaucrat who can afford to say caste does not matter to him and can use his goodwill to resolve the ‘inexplicable’ mess that caste creates in the rural. The movie ends with Ayaan asking the roadside shop owner what her caste is but her reply is not audible as a noisy speeding vehicle, almost symbolic of New India’s vision of hurried progress, zooms past her, leaving her voice unheard.

References:

Fernandes, L., 2006. India’s new middle class: Democratic politics in an era of economic reform. University of Minnesota Press.

Corbridge, S. and Harriss, J., 2000. Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy (Cambridge: Polity).

Dyotana Banerjee is a doctoral researcher in Politics in the department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. Her doctoral work focuses on caste-based spatial segregation and Dalit politics in Ahmedabad.

 


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