Aakrosh and Article 15: Four decades apart yet similar flaws in addressing Caste-based Violence

Two Hindi films, Aakrosh (1980) and Article 15 (2019), almost four decades apart addressed violence perpetrated by savarna caste groups (those belonging to three varnas- brahmin, kshatriya and vaishya) against Adivasis and Scheduled Castes (SC) respectively (also referred to as Dalits). Aakrosh was directed by Govind Nihlani and written by Vijay Tendulkar. Nihlani’s films usually attempt to portray socio-political issues through a realist narrative and cinematography, characteristic of the Indian New Wave Cinema movement (a movement which began in early 1970s and declined towards the end of 1980s). Tendulkar’s works have been inspired by Indian theatre’s progressive movement which challenges regressive values through classic theatrical tool of problem plays.

Article 15 which came out in 2019 was co-written by Gaurav Solanki and Anubhav Sinha. The latter has also directed and produced the film. Though Solanki and Sinha do not have the same staunch ideological identity as Nihlani and Tendulkar, their film was touted as an important intervention in the narrative about caste atrocities in most mainstream and some alternative commentaries on cinema.

Aakrosh can be characterised as a cinematic version of a problem play which addresses caste-based violence perpetrated against Adivasi people in Maharashtra. Article 15 is more of a crime thriller which tries to incorporate elements of commercial mainstream cinema within a realist cinema while looking at the caste-based atrocities and violence against SC population in Uttar Pradesh.

Both movies represent different phases of evolution of Hindi cinema but there are some things which are thematically similar in both vis-à-vis their narratives and cinematography which this article seeks to address.

A Brief History of Representation of Caste in Hindi Cinema

Caste-based violence has been reluctantly addressed in Hindi cinema. In the initial phase of Hindi cinema social issues such as those of caste and gender were addressed in Hindi cinema for a small period of time during the 1930s. After independence the issue of caste gradually disappeared as it was subsumed predominantly by the themes of nation building on the one hand and mainstream filial melodrama on the other. Critical take on Indian society in Hindi cinema emphasised more on class and gender divisions for a long time to follow.

It was not until 1970s that a new type of cinema began to take shape in the Hindi film industry and in other languages, retrospectively termed as the Indian New Wave Cinema. Unlike New Wave cinema movements in other countries, Hindi New Wave cinema did not emphasise upon experimental narratives and cinematography but instead sought to break away from the melodramatic, hyperbolic, escapist tendencies of mainstream Hindi films to represent realism in the narrative structure, subject matter and cinematic techniques. Most of the filmmakers and artists associated with this movement came from the progressive theatre movement which had been active since colonial times. These films inherited social and political themes from this movement and while they were being partially or wholly financed by the Indian government, they were still undertaking critical commentaries on Indian society and politics. Among many other issues, these films also addressed caste based violence as evidenced by the film Aakrosh.

By the end of 1980s the New Wave movement slowly dissipated and gave way to commercialised cinema, a process catalysed by the 1991 liberalisation reforms in India. Subsequently for two and a half decades topics of caste, gender, communal or racial violence became increasingly under-represented as single screen theatres were dominated by commercial entertainers produced by big production houses which refrained from socio-political commentary. It was with the multiplexes opening up in smaller towns in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century that a viable space was recreated for small-budget films which were different from mainstream commercial cinema and could address political and social issues on the backburner for a long time. Article 15 serves as an example of this phenomenon.

Aakrosh and Article 15: Problematic Narratives

Both these films are part of different cinematic cannons yet have some remarkable similarities. Both represent the point of view of brahmin protagonists; public prosecutor Bhaskar Kulkarni played by Nasiruddin Shah in Aakrosh and Additional Superintendent of Police Ayan Ranjan played by Ayushman Khurrana in Article 15. The two protagonists are honest, morally upright individuals who try to bring culprits to justice who are guilty of raping and murdering victims belonging to Adivasi and Scheduled Caste communities respectively. There is a larger conspiracy narrative in both where culprits are either political bigwigs or part of the police system responsible for investigation of the crime. The investigation has been compromised in both the cases because of this complicity.

In both the films, the protagonist has a close aide or a confidante who belongs to the same community as the victims. In Aakrosh Public Prosecutor Dushane played by Amrish Puri belongs to Adivasi community who was once a protegee of Bhaskar Kulkarni’s father and is now Bhaskar’s mentor. In Article 15 constable Kisan Jatav played by Kumud Misra reports to the protagonist Ayan Ranjan. Both Dushane and Jatav at different points in the film are not only portrayed as unsympathetic towards the victim and their families but are also depicted berating the victim’s community as being responsible for their own problems. Although there are savarna characters in both the films doing the same, such a narrative peddled by characters belonging to the victim’s communities themselves who are at the receiving end of caste-based discrimination and violence, exemplify a gaslighting narrative. The validation of negative stereotypes and prejudices against a community by its own members delegitimises their struggles against such perspectives.

In Article 15 this gaslighting technique is also observed at a discursive level. The character ofNishad, played by Zeeshan Ayyub, a SC community leader is shown as mobilising the community and protesting against the caste atrocities. In one of the scenes, he says “Kabhi hum harijan ho jate hain, kabhi ham Bahujan ho jate hain, bas kabhi jan nahi ban paye jis se jan gan man mein hamari bhi ginti ho sake” (Sometimes we are deemed as harijan, other times as Bahujan but we have never been able to become jan (people) so that we may also be counted among the people of this republic). This dialogue delivered for dramatic effect swiftly discredits the term Bahujan by drawing a false equivalence with the term Harijan. While Harijan is a term which has been criticised and summarily rejected by many activists, scholars as a patronising and demeaning imposition of a category upon the SC community, Bahujan is an identity which the anti-caste activists and politicians belonging to non-savarna groups have assertively mobilised as symbolic of the unity of non-savarna people in the country against caste-based discrimination, violence and the caste system itself. This false equivalence is indicative of the larger phenomenon of savarna thinkers, storytellers and scholars commenting upon caste while discrediting the discourses and movements built by the non-savarna groups themselves.

The Unencumbered Savarna Saviour

In both the films the onus of speaking up for the vulnerable community and upholding values of human rights, justice and equality squarely lies on the savarna protagonist. This responsibility, the hero performs often at great peril to himself personally and professionally. While Bhaskar faces attempts at his life by the local goons, Ayan is confronted by the larger conspiracy to shield the culprits because of which he loses his job and faces fraudulent charges against himself.

However, the savarna protagonists in both the films are surprisingly unaware about one of the most obvious realities of Indian society which is the caste system even though both of them are employed in such professions where lack of awareness about social and political reality is improbable. As a public prosecutor Bhaskar is ironically unable to fathom why Adivasi community from Bhikhu’s village maintained a stoic silence and why they along with Bhikhu refused to testify in the case of murder and rape of Bhikhu’s wife. It is only when another character informs him about the well-connected upper caste culprits, does he realise the entire nexus and the truth behind the case.

Article 15 shows Ayan, a senior police officer, being unaware about the phenomenon of caste atrocities in India. Moreover, he is innocent about his own caste and varna identity besides being oblivious of what various varnas are and which castes belong to which varnas. He is also partially unaware about how untouchability works. What is significant is that he is educated about all these phenomena by other caste groups and while instructing him Kisan Jatav belonging to SC community also asserts his own caste superiority to other SC castes. At this explanation the brahmin protagonist is disgusted and reprimands his subordinates for practising the caste discrimination.

What is remarkable is that being a Brahmin himself there is no acknowledgment of the fact that the caste system has been prescribed by brahminical scriptures and texts itself. Thus, the narrative adopts another technique of gaslighting where caste system and its logic are portrayed to be upheld mostly by non-brahmin castes while the initiative to challenge it is borne by the brahmin police officer with no self-reflexivity into his own social location whatsoever. Ironically, at different times in both the films the protagonist is found sermonising on the injustice of the caste system and the violence borne out of it against the characters belonging to vulnerable groups.

There is also the reinforcement of the myth of “castelessness” through this narrative which scholars such as Satish Deshpande and Suraj Yengde have illustrated in their works. The myth of castelessness suggests that those belonging to savarna identity accrue nothing from their caste location and in general do not indulge in any caste-based political activity. This myth deployed in films denies the existence of benefits of social capital derived from caste system by showing the unawareness of the savarna characters of their caste locations. There is no questioning of the Brahminical system behind the caste system or the role played by savarna castes within this narrative.

Singular Manifestation of Caste Violence- Sexual Violence against Non-Savarna Women

The problem of not questioning the logic and source of caste system and caste-based violence stems from the lack of treating the issue as a systemic problem. Both the films are centred around the rape and murder of women belonging to non-savarna sections. Most Hindi films which address caste-based atrocities often reduce it to the singular manifestation of sexual and physical violence against non-savarna women. This type of narrative obscures the fact that caste-based violence exists in far greater number of destructive forms. Caste based discrimination, humiliation and emotional violence which are practised in everyday lives corroborate the argument of “banality of evil” inherent in caste system.

The fact that in almost four decades’ time the narrative of caste-based atrocity still centres around only the sexual violence against a woman from vulnerable sections reinforces the unwillingness of savarna spectators to acknowledge the ordinary violence of caste system. It also emboldens the patriarchal logic of women’s bodies as sites of atrocities representative of an entire community’s plight. The ultimate expression of this trope is found in the penultimate scene of Aakrosh where out of fear of his sister felling prey to the same culprits who had sexually and fatally attacked his wife, Bhikhu strikes a fatal blow to his sister with an axe. This scene reinforces the patriarchal and misogynistic idea that a woman’s “honour” is more valuable than her life. That this idea is expressed through the Adivasi character makes it even more unacceptable.

Such a narrative structure invariably creates a spectacle out of brutality and sexual violence against women which is symptomatic of the phenomenon of “fetishization of violence”. The performance of the incident of the rape in graphic details in some of the shots in Article 15 and through off-screen soundscape in Aakrosh fit into this pattern. The sensitisation of audiences towards gender violence and in addition to caste-based violence should not rely on graphic performance or spectatorship of the act of violence itself.

Design behind the Violence rather than Arbitrariness of Power

In real world the arbitrariness of caste violence has little to do with the victim’s actions and more with the will of perpetrators for asserting their power and dominance which manifests itself in wide variety of actions ranging from caste-based ragging to more fatal forms of violence.  However, in both the films, a specific reason is given as to why the victims were attacked. In Aakrosh it is revealed that the victim Nagi, played by Smita Patil, was raped and murdered because her husband Bhikhu was rebelling against the local power elites. Similarly, in Article 15 the reason given behind the rape and murder of two young female victims was their refusal to work unless their demand to increase their daily wages albeit by an insignificant amount was met. In both the cases the reasons provide a certain logic and design behind the violence rather than illustrating the arbitrariness of violence that emerges from the very practice and logic of caste system. Thus, incidents of violence in both films are addressed as singular events rather than as manifestations of a systemic problem.

The provision of a specific logic or design behind the crime is also observed in the conspiracy narrative deployed in both the films. This narrative is built around the investigation of the crime which is manipulated by the officials in charge. What is noticeable is that the savarna culprits who are trying to mar the investigation are shown to be themselves involved in the crime. This reasoning behind their actions establishes an individualistic or personal motive behind their manipulation of the investigation. The narratives could have reflected a more prevalent problem, which is also often found to be prevalent in reality, whereby investigating officials jeopardise investigation because of their caste-affiliations or solidarity. The vulnerability of established procedures to caste-loyalties is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem in the legal system but in reducing the issue to an individual motive, its broader impact is missed through such conspiracy narratives.

Cinematographic Issues

While narratives and tropes can deploy harmful stereotypes and gaslighting techniques, cinematography can also be used to the same end. Article 15 uses realism in cinematography coupled with a crime-thriller aesthetic. The cinematography plays a key role in creating a spectacle out of atrocities and fetishization of violence in some shots. The bodies of those characters which are sought to be portrayed as belonging to SC community, become the site of all atrocities to bring across the point of caste-based violence. Be it the glimpses of the rapes and murders being committed or the hanging bodies of the victims or the whipping of some youth from the community for attempting to eat in a temple or a man emerging from sewage after having entered the sewer for cleaning it, all these shots perpetuate the narrative of victimhood without any space for a counter-narrative. In fact, the only two characters in Article 15 who represent an assertive stance from the SC community, Nishad played by Zeeshan Ayyub and Gaura played by Sayani Gupta, end up dead and completely powerless respectively by the end of the film.

The theme of caste-based violence in Hindi film narratives find expression most frequently in form of scenes of violence against vulnerable groups, seldom in form of assertion of the community and almost never in form of savarna participation in active mobilisation of their own caste groups for furthering the logic of caste system.  At the same time, shots of pig sties, dirty bogs, smelly tanneries etc. used to recreate a mis-en-scène representative of ghettos belonging to SC community betray an ethnographic gaze which attempts to present a stereotypical picture of the community.

The ethnographic gaze has not changed over the years as evidenced by similar cinematographic treatment in Aakrosh as well. The characters belonging to Adivasi community are repeatedly shown as drunk and powerless, including Bhikhu. He is depicted as crass, uncouth and abrasive against his wife as he is also shown hitting her thus reinforcing the stereotype of prevalence of domestic violence among the non-savarna households. This trope was furthered by the violent scene showing Bhikhu axing his sister in the penultimate scene of the film, already mentioned.

Objectifying the bodies of non-savarna characters was a problematic aspect of this film as well. Since it was made by a refined director like Nihlani, the impact is greater and its harm more inconspicuous to interpret. In one scene, Om Puri’s naked upper body is shown lying on the floor of his jail cell with deeply impressionistic lighting. His body is convulsing and writhing in sorrow as he is haunted by the memories of his deceased wife. Yet again the body of a non-savarna character is used to portray trauma and provides a spectacle for the audiences. Similar treatments are not meted out to savarna protagonists or other characters in such films. Another scene from the film depicts lovemaking between Bhikhu and Nagi. The lovemaking is followed by a shot in which Bhikhu slaps Nagi reinforcing the harmful stereotype of domestic violence being an intrinsic part of an Adivasi couple’s domestic and romantic life.

Cinema and Narratives on Caste

Almost four decades apart, Aakrosh and Article 15 suffer from similar shortcomings i.e., gaslighting narratives, point of views with brahmin saviour complex, characterisation imbibed with “castelessness”, harmful stereotypes etc. Cinematographically, both films had an ethnographic and objectifying gaze towards the Adivasi and SC communities. There was an absence of a counter narrative in the films which provided an empowering depiction of any of the non-savarna characters.

Most significantly both films lack any introspection into the savarna milieu vis-à-vis the origins and perpetuation of caste system, brahminism, brahminical patriarchy and caste violence. In a way this refusal to interrogate the section of society which benefits the most from caste system and its perpetuation and from whence caste-based violence emanates is an example of a glaring blind spot in Indian cinema.  If non-savarna storytellers are interested in cinematically dealing with caste-based violence, they should invert the gaze towards their own life-world both narratively and cinematographically.  

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