Historically, on issues of discrimination, mainstream cinema has mostly shown someone privileged as standing up for someone from a marginalised community
I was 19 when I first drafted my CV. With little accomplishments to speak of, save my illustrious stint as a house sports captain in high school, I wrote in bold, ‘Giving a voice to the voiceless’, as my mission statement. At 19, I believed that I already had a voice.
For those of us who do, it’s a good kind of guilt to bear when you want to give back and do your bit towards a more just and equitable society. Yet, too many of us are more prone to the ‘white man’s burden’ kind of guilt. You know, where you are the protagonist of a marginalised community’s journey towards fairness, justice or empowerment. That ‘saviour complex’ within that gnaws at you to write the histories of people, less as humans and more as ‘fascinating subjects’, in the way author Nandini Krishnan wrote about transgender men.
The issue raged, yet again, when the trailer of Article 15 (directed by Anubhav Sinha) dropped last month, which looked like it had ‘Brahmin saviour complex’ written all over it. An urban-bred cop, Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana), had to ask his subordinates what his caste is and felt disgusted by their nonchalant admissions. Not knowing your caste is the greatest privilege one can possess in South Asia, particularly in India. The choice of a rural setting, also, made it seem like caste is a reality in the back of beyond. Even when I wasn’t ready to judge a movie by its trailer, Khurrana’s repeated caveats on reservation in his interview with Anupama Chopra made me less hopeful.
As one of the few reliable actors today, I knew that pulling an over-the-top tareek pe tareek wouldn’t be his style. But I was afraid that he might speak over mute and grateful characters that represent this apparently “voiceless” Dalit community.
Viewers and reviewers have debated whether Ayushmann’s character could be called an ally or a saviour, with many deeming it altogether irrelevant. But who gets to save whom goes a long way in defining the politics of representation.
Historically, on issues of discrimination, mainstream cinema has mostly shown someone privileged as standing up for someone from a marginalised community. Sinha’s Mulk showed the Hindu daughter-in-law of a Muslim family defend them against terror charges, taking the stereotype head-on yet coming away with reinforcing the ‘good Muslim’ trope. An elderly male lawyer (Amitabh Bachchan) in Pink defends three young women from slut shaming and the character assassination that is typical in Indian courtrooms.
Does a movie made in public interest require a mainstream lead to deliver justice for the systemically oppressed? Does the ability to relate with a character just like us work more effectively in challenging the masses to shift their nursed rigidity around a subject? Maybe. But there are umpteen movies where the lead or protagonist is himself an underdog waiting for a win.
Chak De! India saw a disgraced Muslim sportsman (Shah Rukh Khan), who clears his name after delivering a world cup victory for the Indian women’s hockey team (which included players from Northeastern states like Mizoram and Manipur). In Philadelphia (1993), a cis-black lawyer (Denzel Washington) takes on an NYC law firm that fired a gay white lawyer (Tom Hanks) after he was discovered an HIV-positive.
Such movies define both ‘allyship’ and ‘intersectionality’ much better than the variety produced by Hollywood almost annually for its awards season (aka The Help, Blind Side, Greenbook, Lion, etc). But it’s also often seen that stories directed or written by Dalit makers with their own character leads (Court, Fandry, Sairat, Masaan, Kaala) end up getting ghettoised as ‘Dalit cinema’. And more often than not, a more mainstream filmmaker would come along and whitewash the core issue while remaking the same product (Dhadak).
While the honest savarna cop in Article 15 may be flawed in many ways (he’s looking to save lower castes and teach the constitution, not really learn the reality of the system rooted to religion), the supporting Dalit and Bahujan characters in the movie certainly have a mind of their own. Even if this agency may not help them to immediately seize the day.
The policeman Jaatav (Kumud Mishra) and Dr Malti Ram (Ronjini Chakraborty) are heavily ushered on by Ayan to do what’s right by the system. However, they are warned against pulling any heroic stunts or just doing their job, with helpful reminders of their father’s profession or the quota that earned them their post. The relative lack of agency exercised by the lower-caste persons who made it in the system is the reality of ‘mainstreaming’. When Jaatav finally musters the guts to hit back his senior, Brahmadutt (Manoj Pahwa) even after his jig was up, shows how centuries of servitude render people intrinsically powerless.
Nishad (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayub), modeled on Chandra Shekhar Ravan of the Bhim Army, remains steely in his resolve to ambush the ‘Mahant’ politician’s rally calling for unity between the upper and lower castes after three Dalit men were flogged openly for entering a temple.
From when she first appears, Gaura (Sayani Gupta) locks Ayan in a gaze loaded with all the warning signs that her pleas had gone unheard before. When she reports that the girls went missing after demanding a three rupee hike in their wages at the tannery, she leads on a lot more than just that mere fact. She knows what happens to girls like her when they try to upset the ‘santulan’ (caste system) by demanding what’s fair to them.
Nishad and Gaura especially hold their own through the movie as kindred revolutionaries, who are visibly far more woke than Ayan. With their strong presence and through the character arcs of those like Jatav, Article 15 strikes a tense balance between art and mainstream on a subject considered too contentious in either space. The movie would have felt less disingenuous if Ayan had a learning curve of his own, like Shalini Pathak (Huma Qureshi) in Leila, with flashbacks from seemingly innocuous moments of his caste privilege overlooked at home, college and abroad.
Both in reel and real life, we need allies across the spectrum of caste, gender identities, races, sexual orientations, religions and what not. But especially when you belong to the dominant tribe, just listen, learn and ‘please sit’ down any urges to save the day.
(Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)