By Osheen Nymphadora
Commenting on issues of caste discrimination and Dalit identity in India are often precarious grounds even for seasoned social scientists. Progressive voices often shy away from giving opinions or suggestions in fear of being misunderstood or worse, branded as ‘casteist’ solely because they themselves are not Dalits.
One reason for this is that despite decades of legal ramifications to caste discrimination and affirmative action for the betterment of the marginalised castes, we are far from being a caste-free or caste-less society. Besides, marginalised castes have written an assertive and aggressive political history of their own from the post colonial times. Subsequently, the Dalit identity and the ways in which it is asserted in larger politics and in everyday contestations, is a complex discourse in itself.
At a time when India’s political majority is dominated by privileged caste Hindu groups, it was a brave decision for director Anubhav Sinha to touch upon this aspect of the Indian society through his movie, Article 15. Sinha captures the rural north Indian scenario with respect to the social, political and administrative (mis)treatment of people of a marginalized caste in the aftermath of grave atrocities committed by a dominant caste male on three minor girls belonging to the group. The film captures rape, torture, murder, manual scavenging, mob violence, corruption, caste based reservations, Dalit politics and rebellion, and reflexivity within members of privileged caste in a gripping time frame of two hours and 20 minutes.
The movie has been criticised on two major grounds – first, that the protagonist is a Brahmin upper caste man, a civil servant, who becomes the saviour in the story; second, that the Dalit political identity has been misrepresented by mixing up quotes from different Dalit icons belonging to different ideologies.
I believe that these positions are too stringent for two main reasons –
Firstly, the idea that a person from a privileged caste should never be shown as doing the right thing or should never be a louder voice in the Dalit movement, is uncalled for. Any voice that stands up for justice is a voice which must be heard. If a person from a privileged stratum of the society recognises, questions and tries to undo his own privilege, it paves the way towards a more egalitarian society at large. And this is what the director too emphasises when he says
“I was always clear that I want to place the camera on the shoulders of the privilege and explore it from that lens. So I put my camera on the person with utmost privilege – social and structural – and started an inward journey from thereon”Anubhav Sinha in an interview with Huffington Post
Secondly, the Dalit identity in India is not singular or linear. There are several ideologies defining Dalit emancipation through their own vantage points depending on regional and historical contexts. The film captures this broadly and bluntly rather than in its intricate details by showing two broad characters – a disenchanted revolutionary and an opportunist politician. The boundaries of assertive Dalit identity are kept fluid and broad for wider relatability and due to paucity of time as it was not primary to the plot. In fact the actor who played the underground rebel in the film himself has clarified this in an interview.
“The many references from real people, be it the two lines from Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s last letter about his aspiration to become a writer or a scientist, the overall shadow of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad alias Ravan on Nishad or the hat-tip to freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad, were also intentional.
We did not want Nishad to be just one person whom we can easily find in the society. He was a representation of the intellect and the brightness of the people who are not getting their due, who are in a fight because of the place or the caste they are born in.”Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in an Interview with Business Standard
On the whole, I believe that Article 15 is a movie that (re)generates awareness and opens up (much needed) dialogue in the public domain (especially in urban India) on caste atrocities and its perpetrators of today. Its significance as a film on caste issues is limited to that extent.
Expecting in-depth knowledge and portrayal of the Dalit discourse with its rich and robust diversity, from a commercial feature film is probably an overestimation which does not amount to constructive discussions and solutions.