Sometimes you get lucky at the movies. Multiplex releases all seemed to end with a number and I’d done enough of those. I thought I’d check out the Indian movies at Burwood/Paramatta.
Article 15 had the best trailer. Number or not, this was a smart choice. It proved to be that dream combination of issues and suspense drama - think Sidney Lumet at his best, except that director Anubhav Sinha looks like a better craftsman than Lumet. His Mulk is already admired on his home turf.
Chandigar born star Ayushmann Khurrana, who springboarded from reality TV, plays an educated young man from a well-off Delhi family. He is appointed senior Indian Police Service officer to a remote village named Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh. On a ‘phone call to his also privileged class squeeze, he muses that only the influence of his family got him the job and it was her who pushed him into becoming an activist. He rapidly finds himself out of his depth.
Three local teenage girls have gone missing (the real life case was about eight year olds) and his senior constable already has this sorted as honour killings. They find two of the girls hanged and arrest the fathers. This is all happening against a background of “two thousand year-old caste divisions in 2019.” The girls, like all the menial workers on whom the community’s functions depend, were “Scheduled caste” Dalits and orders to wind up the case are coming from a high placed Brahmin involved in the Dalit-Brahmin Hindu common political front whose rally is approaching. Khurrana has no idea what is going on and has to be told the caste ranking of his associates - and his own.
Meanwhile three young men are beaten in the street for daring to enter a Temple and a union leader has gone on the run because local factory girls asked for another three rupees and moved to work where they could get the pay rise spreading their strike by WhatsApp. As a result, there are cows and dogs grazing on the garbage spread on the streets in front of public buildings and the police station toilets are flooding from neglect. A burning hemp bundle sets a police car on fire. The senior constable berates his deputy for playing detective and the new arrival for delaying signing off on the investigation and making all these problems go away. “People like you are just transferred. People like me are killed.”
However, Khurrana tracking over the crime scene finds a single pink sandal like the one the missing girl was wearing on the edge of the swamp near the Tannery, a streetstall operator talks about seeing a yellow school bus and a young woman pathologist asserts that the dead girls had been pack raped despite the more lax finding of the senior coroner. Our hero wants to probe the swamp but the man power he needs is out on strike. The rally hoarding has already been placed over his “Missing” posters. Khurrana prints out Article Fifteen of the 1950 Constitution, the one about discrimination, and pins it on the police station door.
After a few ‘phone calls the case is passed to the CID and their imposing senior investigator comes in, pressures the inexperienced new comer, warning him that he’s already broken the law by asking the caste of the people involved, and removes him from the case. However Khurrana has got the measure of the situation and tells him that in this shambles no one will take any notice of that.
The ending is strong stuff if maybe a little too optimistic. The sub-plot of the promoted ex-street sweeper cop is particularly resonant - think John Ireland in the 1975 Farewell My Lovely. We are not too far away from Never Look Away and particularly close to Pietro Germi’s superior 1949 In nome della legge with this one.
The copy at Parramatta is excellent with great images like the hanged bodies swinging in the mist, the burning Jeep, the search party’s torches in the swamp at night or (everyone picks up on this) the sewer worker emerging from the black gushing liquid filth. Cameraman Ewan Mulligan ran up to speed on such items as The Sleeping Beauty of East Finchley and Zombie Spring Breakers. The sub-titles are notably literate presumably reflecting the quality of the writing. “We don’t need a hero but just someone who doesn’t wait for the arrival of hero.”
From this distance it’s hard to place this in the spectrum of Indian production, running a mere hundred and thirty minutes and with its only production number coming under the end credits. Its home territory commentators take it all seriously and recognise their familiar faces with enthusiasm. A number of these players are conspicuously excellent. It’s more than a bit disturbing to find a film as good as this hiding in plain sight.