Netflix Now: Article 15 (2019) - Reviewed

It’s been interesting this year to watch social issues being tackled by a culture many Americans are almost wholly unfamiliar with. Earlier in the year, Netflix distributed the film Soni wherein a female police officer is subjected to daily, sometimes violent sexism by both criminals and her peers. It’s a stark, unflinching portrayal of the anger, frustration and sadness that fills a person just trying to do their job but is shut down at every turn because of their gender.

Article 15, in part, deals with discrimination but on a much larger scale. Deputy police chief Ayan Ranjan (a terrific Ayushmann Khurrana) is assigned to the town of Laalgoan. Immediately, he’s thrust into a case where three girls have gone missing. Two are found hanging from a tree and Ranjan’s subordinates have a strange desire to place blame on the fathers and chalk it up to an honor killing. As Ranjan descends down the rabbit hole of his investigation, he starts to unravel a conspiracy that pits lower castes against higher castes and a way of life that has allowed discrimination to go on, unchecked, for decades. Maybe even centuries. 

This question permeates throughout the film. The title, Article 15, refers to the part of the Indian Constitution which states “There shall be no discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.” The problem is, no one really follows this law. Ayan Ranjan was educated at St. Stephens College and spent time in Europe where he was able to see a society that didn’t operate based on the caste system. This informs his way of thinking as he takes control of the police station in Laalgoan. He’s appalled by the seemingly endless rape and murder that goes on, unchecked, within the lower castes. His fellow officers, many in higher castes, feel that it’s beneath them to investigate these things. They won’t even eat off of the same dishes as people lower than them and express bewilderment when Ranjan frequently asks questions about their habits. 

Writer Gaurav Solanki and director Anubhav Sinha hit these themes a little too hard on the head in trying to address the many problems the film tackles. Ranjan is largely an observer to the many atrocities committed against lower castes. The camera will slow down as he witnesses one discriminatory act after another. When he finally becomes reactive, triumphantly placing a printed copy of Article 15 on the wall, he’s given a slo-mo hero walk set to ridiculously excessive music. Sinha is a director mostly known for his absurd action films and unfortunately, some of his worst impulses are on display here. He often treats heavy subject matter a little too melodramatically and it ends up playing a little too silly in some cases. There’s also a completely unnecessary framing device where each scene of an atrocity wraps up with Ranjan calling or texting his wife to tell her his feelings on the matter. Being such an internal character, the intent makes sense that you’d want to see how Ranjan related to the world around him but these scenes are often superfluous and repeating what you’ve just watched.

Here’s the thing, as silly as this film can sometimes seem, what it’s tackling is important. Being far from an expert on Indian politics and culture, one would be hesitant to question certain aspects. That’s why it’s nice to see a film like this take on the caste system. Ranjan remarks his dismay at one point about a 2000 year old tradition being used in how they govern and police their country. There are interesting parallels to American society and how we still hold up 200+ year old ideals and try to make them work in today’s culture. Seeing another country deal with its own form of bigotry-in this case the lower vs higher castes and the police’s disinterest in protecting the lower caste- hits hard. The many echoes in the film of what we experience here in this country are a stark reminder that the people and places aren’t as different as you’d like to think.

Despite some haphazard storytelling, there’s still a thrilling detective story at the center of all of this. It’s here where Article 15 shines with genuinely tense moments and gorgeous camerawork that illuminates the Laaolgaon country-side. When Sinha takes his time and removes the bells and whistles that he’s accustomed to, he crafts a gripping film that takes an idealistic chief of police down a road he’s definitely not ready to go. It’s well worn territory but through a lens we haven’t seen much of stateside. A moody score and excellent performances round this out to create a procedural that wouldn’t be out of place next to prestige television like The Killing. 

Article 15 is a solid detective story dealing in harsh questions with even harsher answers. It’s not always great but when it is, it soars. Netflix is a lot of things but their continued efforts to make Indian cinema available to American audiences is commendable. Bollywood has often been stereotyped as churning out over-the-top action spectacles with lavish dance numbers. While those representations have value, Indian cinema is a vast and rich landscape, with a wealth of voices waiting to be discovered. With varied efforts being readily available like this and the exemplary Soni, hopefully that perception begins to change. 

--Brandon Streussnig