Article 15 opened the recent London Indian Film Festival and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award. It took me a few days to realise that it was also released in UK cinemas and fortunately I managed to catch it before it disappeared. Like most contemporary Indian ‘independent’ films it seems to have struggled in Bradford. That’s a shame because this is a hard-hitting drama that had me pinned to my seat for 130 minutes. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 which lays down equality in the eyes of the law for all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or place of birth. In reality it has been very difficult to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 15, especially in village communities where traditional values prove difficult to challenge.
Writer-director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer Gaurav Solanki have written a script which sees the familiar figure of a sophisticated urban police officer (an officer of the IPS – Indian Police Service) sent to rural Uttar Pradesh to take charge of a district police station – only to find himself immediately embroiled in a case which challenges all his beliefs. (The suggestion is that his posting is some form of ‘punishment’ by the Home Ministry or senior management of the IPS.) The IPS is an ‘All India Service’ that operates across the Union and provides senior officers for state police – I think the officer here is a Superintendent of a Rural District. The narrative is loosely inspired by two historical cases of gang-rape in 2014 and public flogging in 2016. Three young teenage girls go missing but two of them are soon discovered murdered and their fathers charged with honour killing. The new police chief is suspicious about the swift resolution of the case and the subsequent failure to find the third girl. He discovers that caste discrimination is at the centre of the problem which further involves exploitation of child labour and communal tensions around election campaigns. The narrative develops as a police procedural with political interference.
The film has a very distinctive look, ‘feel’ and sound design. Cinematography by Ewan Mulligan on his third shoot for the director is extraordinary. Many of the scenes take place from ‘dusk to dawn’ so that the villages are constantly dark and dim, lit by torches or fires. As one journalist puts it: “Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village” (Gayle Sequeira, Film Companion website). When there is full daylight, the image is often de-saturated so that the world is reduced to tones of grey, green and yellow and mists shroud scenes. Mulligan cites Tarkovsky and Gordon Willis as his inspiration. Both cinematographer and director were aware of the likely comparisons with American narratives about crusading cops going into the Deep South and grappling with traditional communities. The ‘feel’ of the film comes as much from horror films as from procedurals (Mulligan has a background including horror shoots). The use of music in the film is both unsettling and unusual. Much of the time the use of music cues to emphasise shocks and a general feel of ‘dread’ seems overplayed. The film opens with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and closes with a rap number. In between, the credits suggested several songs but I don’t remember hearing them – there is far too much going on. The title credits suggest two main production companies for the film, the private company Benaras Mediaworks (which also produced Sinha’s two previous films) and the TV/Music company Zee Entertainment. I’m not sure if Zee’s involvement makes this a mainstream film, but ‘Bollywood’ it ain’t. It’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish what might be an Independent or ‘Hindie’ film.
Language itself is one of the key elements of the film. Though most of the dialogue is in Hindi, the central character of the senior officer Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) speaks English at key moments and there is a joke about his use of ‘Fuck’, uttered when he is angered by what he finds. In a confrontation with the senior CBI agent sent to take over the case, Ranjan’s background (private school, time spent in London) and his use of English is criticised, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals. He is advised to use Hindi but he retaliates by suggesting that the agent speaks Hindi as a second language. (The agent is played by the Tamil actor Nassar.) One of the strengths of the film (and possibly a weakness in appealing to mainstream audiences and non-Indian audiences) is the detailed dialogue exchanges about caste and about politics. I was intrigued to learn that it is an offence to ask someone what caste they belong to. This matters little in the investigation and Ranjan gradually uncovers the the hierarchies that exist in the villages and how they are present among his police officers. I would have been more lost if I hadn’t spent time learning about Scheduled Tribes and Castes in studying other Indian films. One of the key images in the film is the extraordinary sight of a man lowered into an overflowing drain and emerging completely coated with filthy material. I was reminded of Court (India 2014) and Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) films which explore the injustices and discrimination suffered by Dalits.
Although the central theme about caste discrimination and corruption in the police and local government is prompted by gang-rape, the violence towards women is not really explored in detail. Ranjan has a partner Aditi who is an activist/journalist but for most of the film she only communicates with him by phone/text though she does join him towards the end of the narrative. There are also a couple of significant female characters in the district who are key to Anjan exposing the corruption. It’s also important that the rapes are presented as being about power – over the women, over all workers and power used to maintain caste discrimination. I don’t think it would have been possible to explore the legal framework around rape in the necessary detail in this film. I hope it will be explored in similar films in the future.
The performances are are all very good. I realised later that I had seen Ayushmann Khurrana’s first film role as the lead in Vicky Donor (India 2012), a very different kind of film, though in its own way a challenge to the mainstream. I’ll try to find some of his other films. I’m not sure about his hair style for Article 15!
The film may have struggled in Bradford but it has made a big impact in India and in other international markets. It had grossed Rs 34 crore (nearly $5million) after just a week on release in India with over $1 million overseas. In the UK it just missed the Top 15 with 55 screens earning £50,000 in the first weekend. I noted that it screened without an Intermission in Bradford, whereas Indian reviews suggest it still had one there. I think an Intermission might have diminished its power, but on the other hand it might have enabled some reflection on what was an intense first half. Reading various reviews, the one that stands out is the Sight and Sound (August 2019) review by Naman Ramachandran who argues that the Indian state was long seen as ‘secular’ but that Narendra Modi’s two election victories have seen the rise of the ‘Hindu state’. In this context, the failure of the state to enforce the rights of all and to in effect allow caste discrimination is a truly terrifying prospect. The film’s resolution suggests the possibility that the community can come together to search for the missing girl but doesn’t promise that such cases won’t arise again.
Official trailer (no English subs but a reasonable representation of the visual style):
This film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of ‘Bradford Pride’. It was introduced as the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship. That’s certainly a claim that is worth unpacking, but first I need to outline what kind of film this is. It certainly belongs in the category of mainstream Bollywood, being a Vidhu Vinod Chopra production presented by Fox Star. (It was released in February this year and I wonder what is happening to Star with the sale of Fox to Disney?) It features three stars who span the history of Hindi popular cinema from veterans Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla to Rajkummar Rao as a representative of the younger generation. But it is a début feature for writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar. The central character, Sweety, is a young woman from the Punjab played by Anil Kapoor’s own daughter Sonam Kapoor. Ms Kapoor has had several leading roles in Hindi productions but whether she qualifies as a ‘star’ for mainstream audiences is open to debate.
These production details are important as the avowed aim of Shelly Chopra Dhar was to make a film which would present the taboo subject of a lesbian relationship not just to the urban multiplex crowd but also to the traditional audiences of small town India. As many scholars and commentators have noted, Bollywood’s biggest problem in recent years has been that split between sophisticated audiences in the Metros and the traditional concept of the ‘All India’ audiences across the country (or at least across North India). I’m not sure she has succeeded.
It’s tricky to discuss how the film was received in India. The film’s promotion seems to have tried to maintain the surprise while the impending release was already generating controversy. In 2018 the Indian Supreme Court made decisions which seem to guarantee a choice of marriage partner to all citizens, yet there are various state regulations and legislation for different religious groups. At least one IMDb ‘user’ complains about a lack of warning about the film’s content (she had taken her young girls to a screening of what she thought would be a family/romantic comedy).
The narrative begins with a family wedding in Delhi at which enough hints are dropped that Sweety has met the girl of her dreams in the form of Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, a Tamil actor making her Hindi debut). The film’s title refers to the song first used in the Anil Kapoor film 1942: A Love Story (1994) when he meets Manisha Koirala. The 1994 film was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. I don’t know if the song title and memories of the 1994 film confused audiences but Sweety’s attraction to Kuhu must be kept secret. After the wedding, Sweety and her family return to Moga in Punjab where her father Balbir (Anil Kapoor) is the owner of a large garment factory. Meanwhile Rajkummar Rao is introduced in Delhi as Sahil, a struggling Muslim playwright whose latest play is in rehearsal. Sweety is visiting Delhi and comes into the theatre to hide as we realise later when her angry brother Babloo bursts in. Sahil feels compelled to rescue Sweety and a chase begins. I won’t spoil the narrative any further except to say that Sahil is clearly smitten with Sweety and she, unaware that he is the writer of the play she has just watched, tells him it doesn’t convey ‘real love’ which is always more ‘complicated’. This is our clue to what will follow. Sahil will go to Moga with a plan to win Sweety. We will learn more of Sweety’s backstory through flashbacks. There will be a comedy of confusion and ‘complication’ and a grand finale in which all will be revealed/resolved. In this respect the film seems traditional and straightforward. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much in noting that Sweety’s secret will be fully revealed in a public performance, so that the cinema audience will have the same revelation as the audience for the performance in the narrative. Intriguingly, the idea for the narrative is taken from P.G. Wodehouse’s 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress. The novel has twice been adapted for the stage and for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Joan Fontaine film. It was most recently staged in 2015. Once aware of this it is easy to see the narrative mechanisms at play in the Bollywood film.
As I left the screening, a group of four women in front of me were discussing the film and they seemed to agree that it picked up the pace in the second half after a slow opening. We had a few moments of dark screen where the Intermission would have been. The convention appears to still hold in Bollywood despite this film being only 120 minutes long. I’m not the target audience for the film but I doubt that it will have satisfied its intended audience, although there were some quite moving moments when a young teenage girl in the audience for Sweety’s performance is clearly affected by what she sees. I also thought it was quite clever to use the same actors for the younger Sweety in the flashbacks and as performers in the show. But there are two whopping problems. First Sonham Kapoor seems miscast. Bollywood has never bothered too much about realism but it’s difficult to take an actor in her thirties playing ten years younger. I have to agree with the many comments that she just doesn’t have the vital spark that this character needs. But perhaps that is partly because she barely gets to touch Kuhu in the film. An embrace and holding hands is more or less the limit.
The other reason why the central couple are not central is that the re-teaming of Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla works so well. They play out several comic scenes and at one point I was almost hoping that the narrative would switch and explore the ‘feminisation’ of the Anil Kapoor character (whose mother stopped him becoming a chef and didn’t allow him into the kitchen because it isn’t ‘man’s work’). Rajkummar Rao is not really given enough to do (see Newton (India 2017) for one of his outstanding performances). As for the other ‘casting’, of Moga as a small town outside the Metros, I think that’s another missed opportunity, especially with Balbir as such an important local business person. The ‘real’ Moga appears to be a city of 300,000 people but the film representation could be anywhere. Perhaps that’s the point.
The music and dance sequences seemed OK to me but nothing special. I don’t regret seeing the film and I did enjoy many scenes but I can’t see this as a film that will break down barriers. It promises to explore the ‘complications’ of Sweety’s love relationships but barely touches the surface. I have written about a couple of much more challenging films from Malayalam cinema (The Journey 2004) and from Hindi cinema Margarita with a Straw (2014) and there is always the classic of late parallel cinema, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. I accept that these are three films made by ‘diasporic directors’ based in North America and that they are not mainstream cinema. In its review Bollywoodhungama.com lists several other titles and comes to more or less the same conclusions about Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as I’ve outlined above. But it ends with the suggestion that “At the box office, its appeal will be restricted to niche urban multiplex audiences”. The review appears to have predicted correctly and after two weeks the title was declared a ‘flop’ in India (Bollywood box office analysts are brutal) even though it made 20 crore rupees in the first two weeks (around $2.86 million) in India.
Here’s a trailer (no subs) that demonstrates how Sweety’s ‘secret’ is kept.
It’s become clear in the last few years that Indian Independent films or ‘Hindies’ – as well as what might be called ‘New Bollywood’ films – still struggle to find the best way to get onto the international film festival circuit and to interest buyers in overseas territories. Mainstream commercial pictures from the larger Indian language cinemas generally have their own overseas distribution systems. My local multiplex regularly shows Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Urdu films alongside Bollywood, but I have much less chance to see the indies. Occasionally one or two pop up in UK festivals and when I spotted Bhonsle in the Glasgow programme, I was determined to get to see it.
Writer-director Devashish Makhija and the film’s star Manoj Bajpayee first made a short film together a few years ago while trying to find the funding to make Bhonsle which now appears as produced by Indie Muviz, although I’m fairly sure the credits suggested that Bajpayee himself had a production input. Makhija’s first two features were both very well received.
The film begins with a long title sequence in which we see the construction and painting/dressing of a clay Ganesha idol for the local celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi – something which formed the centrepiece of Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Kings (India 2012). In Bhonsle, the preparations are intercut with a sequence in which a police officer gradually strips himself of his uniform and emerges in simple white clothes. We also see a farewell that marks the moment of his retirement from the police force, but we get the sense that his retirement is not something he really wants and he asks for consideration of an extension to his employment. There is clearly meant to be a link between the religious celebration and this man’s retirement. This is a film that generally shows rather than tells and over the next two hours plus we have to work out some things for ourselves. Reading the film requires some knowledge of Indian geography and culture and some of the (limited) commentary on the film from non-Indians seems to get a few things wrong. I’m not sure I understand everything, so please correct me if I’m wrong.
Eventually we realise that the retired police officer is ‘Bhonsle’. In fact he is ‘Ganpati Bhonsle’. Ganpatai is another name for Ganesha. I’m not sure if Bhonsle actually carries this as a family name or whether it is simply a name to link him to Ganesha. Either way, he is the oldest man in the ‘Churchill Chawl’, one of small housing blocks in Mubai, and he is in some ways the respected elder although he now keeps himself much to himself and is gently mocked by some of the younger men. The chawl is not a peaceful place. Mumbai has long been the land of dreams for migrants from across India and now Biharis from North East India are coming to live in some of the cramped rooms. A local hothead Vilas (Santosh Juvekar), a taxi driver, has been recruited by a local politician of a Marathi Nationalist Party to stir up trouble among the Marathi youth (i.e. the local population from Maharashtra). Bhonsle ignores this at first but then discovers he has new neighbours, a Bihari woman Sita (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) and her young brother Lalu. Bhonsle finds himself, reluctantly at first, standing up for these two against Vilas and the main part of the narrative involves these four characters leading to a chilling climax. All four gibve strong performances and Santosh Juvekar reminded me very much of Nawazuddin Siddiqi in appearance.
The Glasgow programme suggests that this drama is about India’s ‘class structures and racial divides’ and I’ve seen other comments that is about ‘caste differences’. But I think it is simply about prejudice against ‘outsiders’ and something whipped up by India’s current populist politics which in other cases are indeed nationalist/regionalist or religious/communal. Biharis are a sizeable minority in Maharashtra, as are many other groups who have migrated to Mumbai from other parts of India. Sita is a nurse and in terms of social class presumably on a par with Bhonsle.
The first part of the film in particular has a very slow pace. We spend quite a long time watching Bhonsle come to terms with what it is going to be like getting old and decrepit and lonely in his cramped room. At one point we are offered a dream sequence, in effect a series of images of the room falling into decrepitude. The cinematography by Jingmet Wangchuck a graduate from the Film and TV Institute of India in 2011 is one of the important elements of the film’s look alongside the soundtrack by Mangesh Dhakde and editing by Shweta Vengkat (who has worked on several notable ‘Hindies’ such as Newton and Gangs of Wasseypur).
The pacing speeds up for the remainder of the narrative once the interaction with Sita and Lalu begins. I enjoyed the film and I was always engaged. The ending is shocking with a brutal scene brilliantly photographed in an enclosed space. I do wonder though about whether the narrative is stretched out too far. 132 minutes, though not long by Indian standards, could be tightened up a little to attract international buyers. Others disagree I know.
Here is an excellent interview (in English) with the director Devashish Makhija at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea in which he explains his personal reasons for making Bhonsle.
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb was the final film screened in HOME Manchester’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. It was introduced by the season’s curator Omar Ahmed who added to his review of the film on his blog at Movie Mahal. Omar usefully contextualised this film, about two female Mumbai sex-workers who rebel against the control of the pimps and corrupt police, with references to the contemporary cycle of Indian films about the ‘New Woman’. Just as importantly, he also recognised that there have been films throughout Indian film history which have attempted to present the ‘New Woman’, most notably perhaps by Satyajit Ray in Mahanagar (The Big City) in 1963. Another way of looking at this is to think about the stories of courtesans in the Mughal era who have featured prominently in historical Indian dramas and whose presence has often shifted readings of the male characters in the films.
The film is an adaptation by Aditya Kripalani of his own (third) novel. It’s Kripalani’s first feature as a director and in addition he produced the film and worked with the film’s music composer, Marcus Corbett. (See the YouTube clip below for the story of the film’s crowd-funding.) I tend to agree with Omar’s comments on the film. I found it engrossing and thought-provoking throughout and the two central performances by Vibhawari Deshpande as Laxmi and Chitrangada Chakraborty as Putul/Tikli are quite stunning. The ensemble cast members are well-written, as is the action in each scene as might be expected from a filmmaker coming from a scriptwriting and literary background. I’m less sure about the flow of the overall narrative structure and the mixing together of seemingly different filming styles. It appears to be an independent film which has not quite digested the generic conventions of the mainstream that it hopes to incorporate. In addition there are a number of devices in terms of the use of songs and moments of reflection which work well on their own terms but perhaps stand out too much in the film overall. The films lasts around 150 minutes. I was never bored throughout the long running time, but there were several moments when I thought we might have reached an ending but after another fade to black the film carried on. There was no Intermission as there might have been in a mainstream film.
As I’ve tried to indicate, the narrative uses generic conventions but in a sense supersedes them by developing ’rounded’ characters for the two leads. Laxmi is a street prostitute working with a group of women on a dark roadside in Mumbai. She’s an experienced worker who ‘mentors’ the new girls and her pimp brings her Putul, a seemingly lively and smart young woman, who will stay with Laxmi, sleeping in her room until she knows the ropes. Putul soon reveals herself as no timid victim and Laxmi finds the roles in their relationship almost reversed as Putul (who gains the nickname ‘Tikli’, meaning ‘short fuse’, I think) begins to break the rules and threaten to subvert the system. We gradually learn something of the characters’ backgrounds, though little is stated directly. I noted the Prabhat Studios poster on the wall. The famous studio from the 1930s and 40s was based in Pune, where Vibhawari Deshpande was born. Laxmi is to some extent the local, whereas Chitrangada Chakraborty, as her name suggests is from Calcutta and Putul is a stranger to Bombay.
The film’s main strength is the way in which Aditya Kripalani explores the structure of the street prostitution racket. He offers us an almost ‘procedural’ presentation, taking us carefully through the process to show how the women take payment before a ‘trick’, how they have a ‘protector’ in the form of an auto-rickshaw driver, how they pay a percentage to the pimp and how the police round them up every few weeks – but drop charges because they have been paid-off by the pimp. And with power over everything (and everyone) there is a ‘super pimp’ who is aiming to be elected as a politician. Having laid all this out, Kripilani then uses Tikli and Laxmi as agitators who explain to the other women how they are being oppressed and how they could subvert the system by ‘doing it for themselves’, cutting out the men who oppress them and keeping a greater percentage of their earnings. There is a scene in a local café in which Laxmi and Tikli explain their plans and one of the older women plays the character who argues that what they are suggesting just can’t work. For a fleeting moment I was reminded of the famous scene in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (UK-Spain 1993) when villagers argue about land seizure during the Spanish Civil War.
The weakness of the film is that the villains, the pimps, the auto-rickshaw driver, the hired goons and corrupt police are simply generic types and this undermines both the performances of the leads and the writing of the scenes between the women. The two central characters develop so that we care for them but this in turn is lost in a genre climax with a chase scene. At the end Kripalani adds a short coda with a little twist which gives a positive note. As well as noting the filmmaking flaws, I agree with Temple Connolly in feeling that the film’s poster suggests a kind of ‘tacky sex comedy’ (see the first image of the trailer below). Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (which refers to the women as a ‘street gang’) has moments of humour but is essentially a serious film with an important argument to make. I want therefore to praise the filmmakers for broaching the subject of street prostitution and recognising the exploitation of women, but also their capacity to organise and to fight back. They demonstrate solidarity and an understanding of patriarchy and how to fight it. I understand that many of the heads of department on the crew were women and certainly the general representation of the female characters is quite different than the usual exploitation film with its ‘male gaze’. The film has been successful at various international film festivals, showing in London, Leicester, New Zealand and Berlin as well as Manchester and winning various awards. In India the film is distributed by Netflix, which alongside Amazon seems to be the saviour of certain kinds of Independent Indian films (see Rajat Kapoor’s comments during last year’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Q&A and screening of Ankhon Dekhi).
The trailer below opens with Putul recording a selfie video to place on Facebook, much to the bemusement of Laxmi. I wonder if Facebook would feature so prominently if this film was made now? Perhaps it has a different cultural status in India. The remainder of the long trailer gives a good idea of the mix of styles in the film. Below it the director addresses the camera in his attempt to find funding for the shoot.