The Savarna saviour complex isn’t the main problem with Article 15

The Savarna audience is presented with strong characters to look up to as role models. The Dalits have nobody.

ByRavikiran Shinde
The Savarna saviour complex isn’t the main problem with Article 15
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Article 15 starring Ayushmann Khurrana is one of those rare instances of a Bollywood movie centred on caste and caste discrimination. Its release kickstarted the debate on the “Savarna saviour syndrome” in Bollywood: where a Savarna character comes to the “rescue” of Dalit Adivasis, whether it’s Mohan Bhargawa in Swades, Bhuwan in Lagaan or even Bhaskar Kulkarni in Shyam Benegal’s Aakrosh. Like its predecessors, Article 15 has a Savarna officer, a Brahmin, called Ayan Ranjan who comes to the rescue of Dalits.

Article 15 coalesces the real stories of the 2014 rape and murder of two girls in Badaun, the 2016 incidents of Dalit flogging in Una, and includes a Dalit leader modelled on Bhim Army chief Chandrashekar—with an imaginary Brahmin cop as the protagonist. Its director Anubhav Sinha defended his Brahmin hero, saying: “All white people are not saviours, sure, but all white people are also not tyrants. Only if you don’t see every man with power as a villain can there be dialogue. Otherwise, you are increasing the divide further.”

But the caste of the lead actor—hereafter called “The Hero”, as said by his wife in the movie—isn’t the most spurious thing about a movie that’s portrayed as being anti-caste. 

In this quest to “lessen” the divide that Sinha talks about, Article 15 chooses to do something else: makes Dalits themselves casteist.

Article 15 places a Dalit cop called Jatav, played by Kumud Mishra, at the heart of the movie. Jatav is casteist, inefficient and vocal about his extreme hatred towards other Scheduled Castes “below” him. He accuses them of “routinely filing false SC/ST atrocity cases”. It’s Jatav who first introduces acute casteism to The Hero, who is a Delhi University graduate returning to India after spending time in Europe. Unbelievably, The Hero has no idea about his own caste privilege and the caste system!

Thus, the first 10 minutes of Article 15 exposes its faultlines. We’ve got a Savarna police officer willing to drink water from a Dalit shop, while a Jatav police officer under him is not ready to mingle with “lower” Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, calling them “untrustworthy”.

It’s important to pick this apart. For the first time, a Jatav gets this much screen time in a mainstream movie. In real life, Jatavs, a socially awakened community, routinely receive an array of abuses from “upper castes”. But the director chooses to make a Jatav himself a jativadi Dalit who abuses others and “hates politicians who build statues after getting elected”—an obvious reference to the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati. And yes, more importantly, Article 15’s Jatav is a duffer, precisely how “general category” people perceive SCs who benefit from reservations. Jatav doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word “fuck”, a scene which sparks laughter in the largely Savarna audience.

Let’s assume there’s a remote possibility of a fictional character like Jatav. But Article 15 features about five other major Dalit characters, and none of them are strongly built. There’s an opportunistic politician advocating Brahmin-Dalit unity; a young underground activist called Nishad (Zeeshan Ayub) and his girlfriend Gaura (Sayani Gupta); a doctor called Malti (Rojini Chakraborty) who performs the post-mortem of a gangrape victim. But they’re all weak. 

A Savarna audience is presented with strong characters to look up to as role models: The Hero, his liberal wife played by Isha Talwar, The Hero’s personal assistant Mayank. The Dalits have nobody to look up to as inspiration. Nishad is too radical, Jatav too casteist. The character of Gaura is better written but she neither studies nor works. Dr Malti is too frightened to fight unless The Hero stands by him. 

As a result, notwithstanding the disclaimer that “all characters are fictional and bear no resemblance to the society they represent”, one can’t help but notice the fallacies of the characters built vis-à-vis the director’s stated objective. To “lessen the divide” between Savarnas and SCs, STs and OBCs, Article 15 shows how SCs themselves hate each other—a classic tool used by many Savarna caste apologists who don’t want to be questioned on their privilege and the discrimination they do or participate in.  

Look at this: In an emotional scene showing a manual scavenger completely immersed in a manhole, that’s when the director chose to use a real manual scavenger—albeit with artificial muck—to do the job. That character is not fictional.

The missing Article 15(4): Positive discrimination 

Article 15 of the Constitution, on discrimination based on caste, forms the basis for the movie. Yet Article 15 fails to mention even in passing Article 15(4), which gives the State the right to make “any special provision or the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes”—such as reservations. 

Did the filmmakers read Article 15 in its entirety? It doesn’t mention that Jatav could become a police officer after being a sweeper most likely by means of reservations (anything else is impossible given the discrimination he suffers). The director spends no time building the character of Dr Malti, who is derided by Thakur policemen as a “quota-wali”, or on why the reservation was important for people like her. 

Then there’s a lecture given to a coercive CBI officer, who asks The Hero to stop an investigation into an incident of rape. The Hero says India’s 70 per cent (OBCs, SCs and STs) is abused by the remaining 30 per cent, comprising Savarnas. But he doesn’t talk about why reservation is an important tool according to Article 15(4), and why the 30 per cent comprising Savarnas shouldn’t oppose it. He doesn’t even argue why unequally treating the unequals by giving reservations is fundamentally the right idea.

I bring this up because, in the absence of this explanation, the Savarna audience is left to continue believing that better-off Dalits like Jatav and Dr Malti, who benefited from reservations, did not deserve it fully. It leaves them to continue believing that only poor Dalits like the Badaun girls deserve those benefits. Savarnas want reservations based on “economic” ability. This has been the defence of reservation-baiters for years and the movie does not challenge this notion. In fact, it solidifies it.

Good subject, bad characterisation 

Should Anubhav Sinha be congratulated for building his movie’s theme around the Constitution and equality? Definitely. Some of the scenes inspire intense emotions. But while the movie highlights the issues, it skips the solutions. 

The Constitution is simply portrayed as a sort of Holy Bible for representative purposes alone but without highlighting any major elements. For example, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is mentioned a couple of times, but only to discuss its “misuse”. The Savarna Hero himself is shown as a victim when a false case of atrocities against SC/STs is used against him to suspend him. Moving to real life, the next time a Savarna officer is slapped with the Act, this movie would push a Savarna to wonder if the Act has been misused.

In another scene, when faced with acute casteism, The Hero turns and gazes at a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi rather than a picture of Dr Ambedkar. Article 15 ends with Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, Vaishnava Janato. Remember, Gandhi supported the varna system on multiple occasions. Dr Ambedkar refused to call Gandhi a representative of the Scheduled Castes during the Round Table Conference with the British.

In an interview to IndianCinema Live, director Anubhav Sinha had said: “I may be right or wrong (in my selection of a Brahmin protagonist), but a discussion on this issue should happen.” He told Livemint: “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 recognise 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.”

Perhaps, but all Article 15 does it show the problems, but not where they actually lie. Savarna opposition to the movie when the trailer was launched ended once the movie came out—and this is why. Course correction at this point should have Sinha following up the movie with a sequel called Article 15(4) to show the positives of caste-based reservation. And this time, he can do so without an upper caste protagonist and without a “real” manual scavenger.

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