Article 15 ****
Dir: Anubhav Singh. With: Ayushmann Khurrana, Isha Talwar, Manoj Pahwa, Aakash Dabhade. 130 mins. Cert: 15
Plenty of recent Indian crowdpleasers have hymned the country’s rapid modernisation. Hot from this year’s London Indian Film Festival, Anubhav Singh’s arrestingly tough policier makes the counterclaim that the Modi millions haven’t trickled down anything like enough, leaving vast regions subject to caste conflict, exploitation, and a lawlessness bordering on barbarism. Singh and co-writer Gaurav Solanki use a single case – a missing persons inquiry that becomes a murder investigation after two of three absent girls are found strung up from a tree – as a means of interrogating the state of the motherland as it may still be in 2019. It hardly yields the prettiest picture, but this is as close as any mainstream Hindi release has come to matching that 21st century Korean masterpiece Memories of Murder.
As there, part of the fascination resides in following a case that gets messier with each frame, like a stain that spreads with rubbing. We’re offered an upstanding hero in Additional Commissioner Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana, as precise as his clipped moustache), banished to an Uttar Pradesh backwater just as this sorry case is breaking. Yet he’s battling marital issues that don’t seem like the rote fallback of so much primetime cop drama – more a sickness of the liberal soul – even before he runs up against a restless underclass and his colleagues’ rank complacency. Manoj Pahwa is credibly loathsome as a rotund stationhouse veteran, the embodiment of justice in its most compromised and slow-moving form, who tells a female coroner outraged by the girls’ treatment that she should post a few poems on Facebook.
The plot scarcely lends itself to idle popcorn-snacking, and some intricate details of caste may pass non-Indian viewers by. (Pointedly, social reformer B.R. Ambedkar merits three mentions; the current PM none.) Yet every narrative idea – even a literally throwaway aside involving dog treats – ties up and pays off, and Singh thinks in big, resonant images: an undrainable swamp, a political rally that erupts in flames. One extended close-up on the titular article, bedrock of India’s civil rights legislation, suggests this filmmaker knows where real-world attention must be paid, but Singh also manages to seize our imagination in the dark. “What the fuck is going on here?,” yelps Ranjan after a sparky briefing on caste. Sometimes – and you absolutely wouldn’t have to be Indian to feel this – this is all one can ask of one’s country.
Article 15 opens in cinemas nationwide today.