As IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is driven to the small Uttar Pradesh town of Lalgaon to begin his new posting, the opening credits roll and we hear a familiar nasal voice: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?" Now, there’s no denying that Blowin’ in the Wind is the squarest soundtrack choice imaginable. At the same time, Ayan is just the sort of young man who’d like the song – idealistic, more comfortable speaking English than Hindi, woke but not terribly well-informed. You can picture him on the lawns of St Stephens, strumming a guitar and singing it to his activist girlfriend.
No sooner does Ayan turn off the song, though, than the film gets down to business. He asks the officers with him to pick up some mineral water; they hesitate, then explain they’re passing through a Pasi neighbourhood – chhoti jaat, low caste. This confirms what we already suspect: that caste is the cauldron in which this film will stew. A pre-credits scene had shown flashes of the incident that'll reverberate through the film – the rape and murder of two teenage girls near Lalgaon. We don’t know yet that they’re Dalit, but there’s a pointed visual of an Ambedkar statue, which is indication enough.
The scene with Ayan and the officers stumbling through the morning mist is eerily beautiful, until we see their faces crumple. This slow approach to the reveal of the bodies hanging from a tree is a rare flourish in a film that mostly keeps its head down and accumulates instead of trying to dress up its horrors. There’s something very satisfying about the way director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer, Gaurav Solanki, pile detail upon detail until the screen becomes heavy with suggestion.
Every now and then, Sinha releases the pressure. In a mordantly funny scene, Ayan asks his colleagues which caste they belong to. The replies come immediately and without embarrassment: Thakur, Rajput, Kayastha; even the Dalit officer, Jatav (Kumud Mishra), points out that he’s higher than Pasi. Ayan explodes at his men in frustration and, later, pins up a copy of Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on several grounds, including caste. The most interesting beat in the scene to me is when Ayan asks which caste he himself is. He isn’t being insincere – he can afford not to know, a side-benefit of being upper-caste. Even as Ayan indicts everyone around him for their caste-bound gaze, the film is subtly indicating his caste privilege.
It turns out there was a third girl who escaped the night the other two were murdered. Ayan becomes determined to find her, possibly alive. His best chance is to search a large swamp-like area – a detail which should confirm beyond doubt that the model for this film is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), racism replaced by casteism. But many of the upper-caste officers refuse to enter the swamp and the Dalit policemen are on strike, responding to a call by a local leader, Nishad. Given how gingerly Hindi films usually treat caste, it’s a welcome change to have one point to its all-pervasiveness, the ways it underpins every aspect of life in India.
Though he may have arisen out of the need to provide a counterbalance for the film’s Brahmin protagonist, Nishad becomes fascinating in his own right through some deft writing and the controlled hurt of Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. The ensemble playing is excellent, especially Manoj Pahwa, who displays surprising reserves of ferocity as circle office Brahmadatt. Khurrana’s Ayan is the stable mean of Manoj Bajpayee in Shool and Rajkummar Rao in Newton. With his inherent modesty as a lead performer and his seeming inability to be boring in front of the camera, Khurrana continues to be one of the most watchable actors in Hindi cinema today.
With the impassioned Mulk (2017), and now this film, Sinha seems to have turned a corner in his work. His approach here reminds me of the Hansal Mehta of Shahid: steady, yet searing and humane. Nishad calls his strike because three Dalit men are tied up and flogged in the street. Sinha gives the audience the image it’ll recognise – a recreation of the Una atrocity – then makes the pain more intimate, showing the men screaming in agony in the police station. Later in the film, as we look down at an overflowing manhole, the oily surface is broken by a human head emerging. Sinha shoots this in slow motion, letting the moment linger. The man deposits debris on the side, takes a breath and disappears into the black murk again. It’s a gut-kick of an image. Article 15 might not comfort the afflicted, but there’s every chance it will afflict the comfortable.