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Business News/ Industry / Media/  Ayushmann Khurrana starrer ‘Article 15’ wants the privileged to fight privilege

Director Anubhav Sinha has lost count of the legal notices and life threats he’s received since the trailer of his police procedural drama Article 15 came out last month. Slated for release on June 28, the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer based on Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, is allegedly inspired by real-life incidents including the 2014 Badaun gang rape case and the 2016 Una flogging incident.

Among several other instances of discontent, the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Ekta Parishad has served Sinha a legal notice while the Karni Sena has threatened to disallow the film's screening in theatres. Lead actor Khurrana is also said to have received life threats.

“It obviously affects you but there is no way on this planet you can deal with it, so I just let it be," Sinha said, back from the UK where his film opened the London Indian Film Festival. “There is no conversation today, people simply make judgments in a heartbeat. But it’s a good time to make this film from the perspective of the audience which is way more accepting, they are actually looking for newer stuff. Every time something new comes out, they give it a shot."

The primary criticism against his film, which Sinha said has been heavily fictionalized to depict true incidents and newspaper headlines that he, however, declines to name, is its white savior complex—the fact that an upper caste male cop leads the investigation against the rape and murder of two low-caste young girls in a village.

“I want the privileged to challenge the privilege. That is unusual because the underprivileged will always challenge privilege," Sinha said citing the example of his last film Mulk, a courtroom drama in which the Hindu daughter-in-law of a Muslim family, played by Taapsee Pannu, fights to save its honour. “I believe white people will have to stand up for black people and say what we have been doing is wrong. I’m hoping the film can at least do enough for people to recognize this is a problem that exists. That will be a good beginning and then later we can do a film where an upper caste person doesn’t have to be the protagonist."

To be sure, mainstream Bollywood that has long chosen to be blind to caste (the only sporadic attempts being seen in arthouse cinema, by filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and much later, Prakash Jha), is far from understanding the multilayered nature of the issue. For one, even the Article 15 trailer, like several media reports, seems to depict the assaulted women as dalits, when in reality, they were OBCs. (Other Backward Classes). In another scene, Khurrana is seen asking several subordinates their castes, while being unaware of his own, re-emphasizing the phenomenon of castelessness among upper castes, or the idea that caste barely exists or is completely normalized only when you come from a place of privilege.

“When the focus is on atrocities against dalits, they become the symbol of the caste system and everyone else becomes invisibilised. So it becomes convenient for upper castes to excuse themselves from the narrative," journalist and writer Tejas Harad pointed out. Harad has written extensively on caste issues including for digital media like The Print, Buzzfeed India and Newslaundry. He added that while violence against dalits is a very serious problem and a lot of dalit activists are protesting the same, there are other aspects to the caste issue. For instance, the material aspects of caste--who takes all the decisions in the country, controls resources, cultural and social capital or industries or heads institutions like the media, bureaucracy or judiciary. While it's unfair to judge the film only based on its trailer, the fear, experts say, is it will be driven by a top-down approach.

Sinha, on his part, admits his is a semi-informed perspective on caste acquired by reading and talking to experts. But the issue is so complex and multilayered that no single individual can know it all. The biggest challenge, he said, is to ensure the socially relevant film turns out engaging and not preachy.

“I’ve tried to minimize on words, there is no big monologue unlike Mulk which had three. Having said that, I’m very clear that if I have to choose between being subtle and not being able to communicate, I would sacrifice the former because if I remain subtle for my artistic pleasure, I may miss the reason I made that film," Sinha said. “Sensitive as the subject matter (of caste) is, it is very difficult to contain it within the framework of mainstream Bollywood cinema. Even my film is not very close to the mainstream Bollywood template but the device to keep it engaging was to make it a thriller, focus on the investigation and the suspense while I keep finding opportunities to say what I have to say."

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Lata Jha
Lata Jha covers media and entertainment for Mint. She focuses on the film, television, video and audio streaming businesses. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She can be found at the movies, when not writing about them.
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Updated: 27 Jun 2019, 03:56 PM IST
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