In Anubhav Sinha's "Article 15", a privileged police officer finds himself caught in a quagmire of caste hierarchy - where life and death are steered by surnames.
Named after the provision in the Indian Constitution that prohibits "discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth", "Article 15" takes the case of two missing girls, suspected to be raped and murdered, and shows the impact of societal divisions that have been a core part of the Indian psyche for thousands of years.
Ayushmann Khurrana plays Ayaan Ranjan, a clueless young police officer whose ideals - much like his dapper clothes - are unsullied by ground realities as he arrives in the caste cauldron that is Lalgaon in rural Uttar Pradesh. Ayaan is on the case of the girls, both lower caste, and he soon sees that his officers seem uninterested in the investigation.
Ayaan's team tries to educate him about the existence of divisions and sub-divisions in the caste system in one of the film's most successful scenes. His reply to their effort is pithy in the extreme - and definitely not suitable for small children.
"Article 15" does a fine job of depicting how the marginalized are denied justice. "These people always run away," a policeman tells Ayaan when he asks about the case. Another cop begs him not to arrest the main suspect, a man from a higher caste. "Don't disturb the balance," he tells him.
Ayaan is in no mood to listen. He wants to "un-mess" the mess, he tells his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar), whose job as an activist receives fleeting mention, something to do with equality and gender rights. He is well-meaning, upright and blissfully unaware that there is no quick fix for caste discrimination. When the time comes to take on the filth, he lets others do most of the heavy lifting. He relies on his noble, liberal ideas, and comes off like a savior coming to the aid of the unwashed masses.
Sinha relies on imagery to illustrate the mire of the caste system - Ayaan wades through a literal swamp before emerging victorious. In fact, he emerges from the muck untouched - his pants barely cuffed, and pointy leather shoes almost spotless. Sinha ticks all the virtue-signalling boxes by allowing Ayaan to makes the right noises, uttering every politically correct cliche he can think of.
"Article 15" packs in too many characters and plot points, when one concise story of the missing girls would have done the job. A rebel Dalit leader on the run from the police is in love with the sister of one of the missing girls. There's a politician who forms an alliance with a lower-caste politician to win Dalit votes. It amounts to a half-hearted attempt to show how the caste system and its ills permeate society.
This is a worthy cause, but the film falters with what amounts to an outsider's view of a problem that is so internal and deep that it can be cleaned only from the inside. "Article 15" has the right pants for the job, it just doesn't want to get them too dirty.