Thursday, June 27, 2019


Release date:
June 28, 2019
Anubhav Sinha

Ayushmann Khurrana, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub (credited here as Zeeshan Ayyub), Sayani Gupta, Kumud Mishra, Manoj Pahwa, Sushil Pandey, Ronjini Chakraborty, Isha Talwar, Sumbul Touqeer, Ashish Verma, Nasser
Hindi with some English

Bade bade logan ke iskool kaalej 
Aur bhaiya tuition alag se 
Hamre bachauan ke jimme majoori 
Kahte hain ka hoee padh ke 

Big people study in schools and colleges
And brother, in addition they get tuitions
Our children are obliged to do hard labour
They are told, what will studying get you?

(Extract from Kahab Toh Lag Jayee Dhak Se)

A Dalit woman leads a group of fellow Dalits singing this popular folk song about poverty and inequality in the opening moments of Article 15. It is a catchy tune with a light touch that belies its poignant subject. The manner in which it is used here is also unusual in the context of Bollywood.

First, in recent years, the number of Hindi film duets and group songs fronted by a female voice has fallen sharply in comparison with songs led by male singers. Second, this particular woman – Gaura (played by Sayani Gupta) – is Dalit, a member of India’s most oppressed community and one that has more or less disappeared from mainstream Hindi cinema for about three decades now barring exceptions like Neeraj Ghaywan’s lovely Masaan (2015), in contrast with India’s other language cinemas such as Tamil, Marathi and Malayalam that show far greater awareness of caste.

That producer-director-writer Anubhav Sinha has chosen to kick off Article 15 with Kahab Toh Lag Jayee Dhak Se featuring Gaura instead of a high-caste male messiah of Dalits speaks volumes about his sincerity towards the issues he explores in this gutsy, gut-wrenching expose of caste oppression.

The film draws its title from Article 15 of the Indian Constitution that forbids discrimination against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It is set in a village called Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh where the IPS officer Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is posted. Despite his good intentions, he finds himself initially at sea here because of his skeletal understanding of the caste system.

An intelligently crafted scene in Article 15 serves as an education for Ayan whose liberal background combined with caste privilege at birth has allowed him the luxury – a luxury life does not grant Dalits – of growing up ignorant of caste. In that gently humorous passage, it becomes clear as Ayan quizzes his colleagues about their individual jaati that he knows nothing about this country’s exploitative, congenitally assigned social divisioning beyond what he has learnt in theory from textbooks: that Hindu society is divided into four varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.

What causes Ayan to attempt a study of caste is the rape and murder of two Dalit girls whose bodies are found hanging from a tree soon after his arrival in Lalgaon.

As he proceeds with the investigation against all odds and gets acquainted with Gaura, his own colleague Jatav (Kumud Mishra) and the underground Dalit resistance leader Nishad (Zeeshan Ayyub), he is schooled in the magnitude of India’s caste problem.

All this takes place against the backdrop of the formation of a united Brahmin-Dalit political front in UP. 

Films about marginalised communities are often made to stress the benevolence of progressives from dominant social groups. A striking example is the blatant white saviour complex of that appalling Hollywood film Green Book, winner of 2019’s Best Picture Oscar. Article 15 walks a tightrope to ensure that even as it uses Khurrana’s stardom to draw attention to its concerns and utilises Ayan’s quest for knowledge to enlighten the audience about caste, the screenplay does not get condescending towards Dalits and does not write him, a Brahmin, as a patron of the downtrodden who Brahminsplains caste to those suffering most at its hands.

Besides, although Dalits are victims of criminal discrimination and violence in this film, the portrayal of the community is layered and not limited to teary scenes of nameless persons wallowing in victimhood. The Dalits of Article 15 are also its leaders and warriors, and Ayan is an ally, not a boss.

Nishad and Gaura risk everything to battle injustice. Alongside them exist silent sufferers too as does the very believable Jatav who plays along with existing practices for his survival. And when the motivation for the rape and murder of young Shanu and Mamta is revealed, we learn that they were not bechari abla naaris of Old Bollywood but brave fighters for Dalit rights and martyrs to their cause.

That said, while Article 15’s two most prominent women – Gaura and Ayan’s journalist-activist girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar) – are certainly tough characters, they remain in the woman-behind-the-man mould while at every level the reins remain in the hands of men. This may have passed muster in another Bollywood offering, but must be mentioned here since Article 15 has raised the bar for itself with its approach to caste representation.

A conventional interpretation of this film may be that Ayan is its hero, but in fact the writing and direction skillfully foreground Nishad and make him an equal protagonist although he gets less face time than the former. This is achieved through various means including the use of Nishad alone for a powerful, occasional voiceover, the build-up of anticipation before his introductory appearance, the casting of the always-brilliant Zeeshan Ayyub (Raanjhanaa, Shahid) in the role, and the treatment of the finale.

(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) At first, I was conflicted about Khurrana hanging around in the frame looking grim while a troupe of rappers belt out the anthem of protest, Shuru Karein Kya, in the end. As the number grew on me though, I became aware that I was on edge, worrying that Sinha was about to ruin his beautiful film near the finishing stretch by getting Khurrana to break into a dance and perhaps even throw a glammed-up Ayyub and Gupta in sexy clothes into the mix, because, well, that’s what happens in those thingies called ‘item’ songs. My tension ebbed away though as I realised that this video is instead an inversion of that Bollywood cliché, and that Khurrana’s presence through the song was, at least for me, a reminder of Ayyub and Gupta’s absence. That said, I remain conflicted about the need for Shuru Karein Kya at that point, coming as it did right after a deeply moving, uplifting climax. (Spoiler alert ends)

Where Article 15 really kills it with music is in its astounding use of Vande Mataram. Twice. And both times I had to stifle sobs because the placement of the song in the narrative rips right through the agenda of hate being peddled by extremists currently appropriating Vande Mataram.

Article 15 is a courageous work, not the least reason being that it is filled with references to current affairs from the Badaun hangings to the Una floggings and beyond. There was a time when “Mahantji” was a generic title, here though the allusion cannot be lost on any individual who has not been living under a rock in recent years. Before persecution complexes kick in, let this be said: Anubhav Sinha spares no one in Article 15, not Hindutvavaadi politicians, not Dalit netas who use the community to rise in politics and then treat them with disdain, not the media who were up in arms against the 2012 Delhi bus gangrape but are rarely as stirred by atrocities on women of the hinterland, not cowards who wear a mask of “neutrality” as a means of self-preservation, not members of marginalised groups who become fierce proponents of the marginalisers’ agenda once they themselves are in positions of power, not even Gandhi.

Nishad’s statement, “Hum kabhi Harijan ho jaate hai, kabhi Bahujan ho jaate hai, bas jan nahin ban paa rahey hai ki Jan Gan Man mein hamari bhi ginti ho jaaye” (sometimes we are called Harijan, sometimes we are labelled Bahujan, but we have never managed to be just jan, people, so that we can be counted among India’s general citizenry), could well be seen as the film’s way of noting that while the Mahatma – who popularised the term Harijan (Children of God) – actively campaigned against untouchability, his interpretation of caste was flawed. However, the incorporation of a few bars from one of Gandhi’s favourite hymns, Vaishnava Janato, in Shuru Karein Kya tells us that even if Article 15 is calling the great man out on his failings, it is not outrightly brushing him aside and continues to pay tribute to his overall vision.

(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) The casting of southern Indian acting stalwart Nasser as a government official taunting Ayan for his poor Hindi is a masterstroke – he is not a Hindi bhaashi himself and struggles with the language but backs those who seek to aggressively impose it on India as a whole and have turned it into yet another tool of divisiveness since Independence. (Spoiler alert ends)

Sinha’s unfaltering direction is backed by Ewan Mulligan’s unsparing cinematography and a strong cast.

That Ayushmann Khurrana throws himself into the stoicism and moral dilemmas of Ayan after the impertinence and amorality of his Akash in 2018’s Andhadhun and is convincing in both is a testament to his versatility. Sayani Gupta too has a knack of hitting the bull’s eye in vastly varied roles – if she could so thoroughly immerse herself in the part of a glamorous city-bred journalist in the glossy but superficial online series Four More Shots Please! and deliver as immersive a performance in Article 15’s realistic circumstances, she can do anything. And Ayyub remains his own stiffest competition in successive roles as he gets more remarkable with each one.

The entire cast seems to be playing a round of “Who Is The More Brilliant Actor?” Is it Kumud Mishra who reaches into himself to find the very soul of Jatav? Or Manoj Pahwa playing the incorrigible status-quoist Brahmdutt? Or Sumbul Touqeer who embodies the guilelessness of a child caught in a web of cruelty woven by adults?

The contest for the best talent among them rivals the search for the best-written line. Sinha, whose Mulk skewered Islamophobia, outdoes himself here in the company of his co-writer Gaurav Solanki. I began taking notes during the interval so that I would not forget Aditi’s “Hero nahin chahiye, bas aise log chahiye jo hero ka wait na karein” (I/we don’t need a hero, what is needed are people who do not wait around for a hero), or the hilarious scenes in which Jatav misunderstands an English swear word, or “Daliton ke Robin Hood”, or Brahmdutt’s earnest “Aap se nivedan hai Sir, santulan mat bigaadiye” (I beg you Sir, don’t disrupt the balance), or “If everyone becomes equal then who will be king?” or...and then I gave up because there were too many worth noting down.

Each eloquent sentence spoken in Article 15 feels like an arrow released from a taut bowstring by an ace archer, cutting through bullshit and past the play-it-safe ramblings dominating the ongoing liberal discourse to say it like it is and say what needs to be said.

Watching this film is an overwhelming emotional experience. Article 15 is the best that Indian cinema can be in these troubled times if it chooses to hold a mirror up to our society, compelling us to confront the worst that we are and the best that we can be when we are not busy saving our own skins. 

Rating (out of five stars): ****1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
131 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Poster courtesy:

Stills: Youtube screen grabs  

Monday, June 24, 2019


Release date:
Kerala: June 5, 2019
Delhi: June 21, 2019
Ashraf Hamza 

Vinay Forrt, Divyaprabha, Grace Antony, Chinnu Chandni, Navas, Arun Kurian

In one of the earliest seasons of the iconic American TV sitcom Friends, Chandler Bing’s gang learns that he has a third nipple. Many episodes later, Chandler hesitates to date a woman with a wooden leg but overcomes his mindblock only to find himself rejected by her when she feels grossed out on discovering what he calls his “nubbin”.

The boisterous comedy of Friends is a world away from the sublimeness of Thamaasha, but that episode in Chandler’s life came to mind with good reason as I watched Sreenivasan Masha’s first meeting with Chinnu in this new Malayalam film. Sreenivasan is a soft-spoken college professor with a complex about his premature baldness, Chinnu is a supremely confident youngster who is aware of people’s attitude to overweight women but does not allow anyone to eclipse her sunshine smile. He knows what it is to face prejudice, yet while speaking with her on the phone at a point when she is a stranger to him, he unwittingly reveals his own bias (Minor spoiler ahead) when she guides him to the spot where she is waiting for their rendezvous, and he replies: “But I see only a fat girl standing there.” Sreenivasan crumbles with embarrassment on realising that the woman on the other end of the line is the very woman he just casually labelled, when she replies quietly: “That’s me.” (Spoiler alert ends)

Thamaasha does not let anyone off the hook easily, it does not paint its sweetly likeable hero as a victim without blemishes, and it feels incredibly real. Debutant director Ashraf Hamza’s film stars Vinay Forrt as Sreenivasan Masha (teacher), a socially awkward, shy Malayalam prof who is anxious to be married but cannot find a woman who will accept him, baldness and all. On the advice of his friend Raheem (played by Navas), he decides to seek out a bride among the women he meets professionally and socially.  Meanwhile, his family’s efforts to find a match for him continue. His stumbling attempts to get a wife lead to amusing encounters with Gayathri Teacher (Divyaprabha), Safiya (Grace Antony) and Chinnu (Chinnu Chandni).

Jointly produced by Malayalam cinema stalwarts Sameer Thahir, Shyju Khalid, Lijo Jose Pellissery and Chemban Vinod Jose, Thamaasha is the antithesis of the sort of commercial Indian cinema that is packed with crass wisecracks about obesity, shortness, baldness, skin colour and other cutting personal remarks. This film is about people who are the targets of such cruel comedy on screen and in real life.

Thamaasha is reportedly a remake of the 2017 Kannada film Ondu Motteya Kathe directed by Raj B. Shetty. It is a tribute to the original, which got excellent reviews when it was released, that the Malayalam adaptation is heartwarming, funny, intelligent and unusual.

That Thamaasha has a point to make is evident right from the start, but far from being a lecture, it is a pleasant slice of life in contemporary Kerala and a character study of Sreenivasan and Chinnu, offering moments of great humour along with its valuable lessons. 

Sameer Thahir’s camerawork is as thoughtful as the overall tone of the film and as unassuming as the leading man. The quality of cinematography in Malayalam cinema as a whole is top notch and a constant aching reminder of the magnificence of God’s Own Country for those of us who live elsewhere. Instead of sweeping panoramic views and high aerial shots that bring out the luxuriant greens, blues and reds of the natural landscape, Thahir opts for comparative smallness of scale and less familiar sights, managing to showcase the attractiveness of Sreenivasan Masha’s surroundings even while retaining the film’s intimate feel.

Hamza’s writing of the protagonist and Chinnu are impeccable, and the two actors live their characters as if this is who they have always been.

FTII graduate Vinay Forrt’s most high-profile performance till date was as Malar Miss’s suitor Vimal Sir in Alphonse Puthren’s 2015 blockbuster Premam. In the tiniest of parts in this month’s megaproject Unda, he managed to make a mark. There is another role that does not get talked about as much in the media, but I thoroughly enjoyed his turn as a hot-headed policeman in Shanavas K. Bavakutty’s Kismath (2016). Every iota of acting excellence he has achieved so far recedes into the background in the face of his utter genius as Sreenivasan Masha.

The Everymanness of Sreenivasan, the Malayaliness of him, the diffidence, the clean heart, the traditionalism that exists contiguous to his modern thinking in some matters, the manner in which he metamorphoses into a passionate being when discussing a literary text in the classroom – it is impossible to place a finger on exactly what he does to embody each of these aspects of his character, because he does it with a subtlety that should make its way to cinema studies texts.

The find of Thamaasha is pretty newcomer Chinnu Chandni who has played satellite roles in other films but is pushed to the foreground – deservedly so – with this one. Bless you, Ashraf Hamza for envisioning her screen namesake as a bright, self-assured, positive woman, yet not turning her into the manically energetic but hollow, bubbly cliché of a heroine seen ad nauseam in commercial Indian cinema. The actor gives Chinnu depth and maturity without diluting her cheery personality in any way.

The cast member who is let down by the screenplay is Divyaprabha playing Sreenivasan’s colleague Gayathri. She is good to the extent that she is allowed to be by the writing of the only character that is given such short shrift by Hamza’s imagination. (Minor spoiler ahead) There is a moment in the film where Sreenivasan drops her like a hot brick for reasons I will not go into. While his hesitation to continue his association with her is in keeping with who he is, the film’s complete disinterest in her thereafter is disappointing. It is as though she is irrelevant once she is off the male protagonist’s radar, never mind her own emotions and opinions on the situation. That she is not entirely unaffected by his behaviour is implied by a fleeting expression on her face when he later mistakenly plays a voice message from another woman while she is within earshot. (Spoiler alert ends)

This passage in an otherwise charming film is a sad pointer to the unfortunate truth that although Malayalam’s ongoing parallel cinema movement does offer women many strong roles in contrast with the marginalisation of women in mainstream megastar-driven projects, this movement too predominantly tells stories of men from a male point of view and equality of representation is yet to be achieved even in this relatively enlightened space.

Among the rest of the supporting cast, Grace Antony is spot-on as the object of a mighty misunderstanding in Sreenivasan Masha’s muddled head. Once the confusion surrounding her is sorted out, if you rewind her performance you will see how accurate she was in every frame.

Navas is a firecracker as the hero’s best friend. I felt slightly uncomfortable though with the scene in which his character introduces his wife to Sreenivasan. The equivalence being implied there between her, Chinnu and Sreenivasan is the only point of overstatement in the film. Hey, we got it already. Why underline it with a thick red pen?

Arun Kurian’s brooding intensity works well for his role as Sreenivasan’s good-looking younger brother.

The reason why Thamaasha works so well is because its messaging is couched in amusing, endearing, relatable realism. There are several lines and moments that linger long after the last credit has rolled off the screen, but my favourite of the lot comes from Raheem who turns an old stereotypical notion on its head when he suggests that the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach with these words, “If served nicely, there are only two things no one can turn down, Mashe – affection/love and food.” In a week when a Hindi film has resurrected one of the most repugnant stalker lovers Telugu cinema has ever created, this is such a gentle, refreshingly non-aggressive statement by which to remember this genteel sample of Malayalam cinema.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
120 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Posters courtesy: