Anubhav Sinha is fielding calls.
From lawyers, distributors, journalists, and well, the President’s office too.
His latest film, Article 15, is doing brisk business at the box-office and has also generated significant critical praise. At his office in Mumbai’s Andheri area, Sinha appears quiet and contemplative as he’s soaking in this newfound success - one that’s getting him praise from across sections.
Many have said that he’s mainstreaming conversations about subjects that Bollywood pretends don’t exist while some have criticised Article 15 for Brahminwashing the story of Dalit oppression.
Either ways, Sinha, unlike a lot of successful filmmakers in Bollywood, is listening. “I wanted to meet you because you had a contrarian view,” the director tells me as we settle in his cabin.
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As he asks his staff to get us tea, we begin our interview:
Was there ever a conversation about having a Dalit protagonist instead of a Brahmin hero?
Not really. In fact, we were always dealing with another protagonist who’s a Dalit — Nishad, played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. In fact, he’s someone who Ayan (Ayushmann Khurranna) feels inferior to, to the point that he tells his girlfriend about how she’s never looked at him the way Gaura looks at Nishad. I was always clear that I want to place the camera on the shoulders of the privilege and explore it from that lens. So I put my camera on the person with utmost privilege - social and structural - and started an inward journey from thereon.
That’s a problem I detected in the film. It reinforces the same idea that you are trying to critique, that the Brahmin will brutalise the Dalit, and also be the saviour.
When I was a kid, we lived in a rented apartment in Benares. Our landlord wanted us to leave. They were a nice family. But soon, they started troubling us. They’d cut off our electricity supply for a few hours. Somedays, they’d cut off our water supply. Now, we weren’t a family that’d go out, fight and argue. We’d talk politely. We’d make requests. One day, we heard some commotion within the family. The youngest had decided to call out his parents for the harassment. Eventually, they stopped bothering us. Now, should I reject him just because he’s from that family? No.
That problem, to me, wasn’t that he decides to do something about the oppression but the moments when he goes from being a privileged ally to a sympathetic emancipator who’s glorified for, well, doing his job...and being a decent human being.
We are living in times when decency needs to be celebrated. We have become people who go past images of people being lynched, refugee kids lying dead on the shore, girls hung on trees and homeless people chasing us for alms. So if there’s a person that steps out from the privileged bubble and does something about it, why should he not be celebrated?
By the end, I didn’t feel the transference of power to the people who need it the most. It didn’t move from the privileged to the oppressed. It remained stagnant and the scene where Ayan saves the missing girl, Pooja, embodies that.
Maybe it should have been a Dalit. Another filmmaker should make a film like that, perhaps. But to me, he was the one who started it. He’s the hero although he doesn’t save her in any heroic act. He’s the last to enter the swamp.
However, I am really happy that we’re talking about this. Until last Thursday, we weren’t. I went to Galaxy (a single screen theatre in Bandra considered by many as a yardstick for the film’s reach) and I saw the responses.
I take all the criticism that you are pointing out and it does make me reflect on my choices. But I am also very happy to know how we’ve mainstreamed the conversation around caste.
Throughout the film, Gaura is shown to be fierce and someone who looks at authority as if she’s challenging it, not being scared of it. Why make her fold hands and bow her head towards the end? It reinforces the idea that the world is wronged, and righted, by savarna men, while everyone else exist in the shadow of their benevolence.
That’s how you look at it. For me, it’s a human moment, it’s not a Brahmin-Dalit moment. And it was always written like that. In the scene where Ayan enters the swamp for the first time, Sayani’s character ended up folding her hands, which wasn’t in the script. It came out organically. But we took it out in the edit.
So why keep it in the end at all?
Because you have to also understand that all of them, Ayan, Gaura, Jatav, Mayank, Nishad have become like one family fighting for the same cause. As a writer-director, I never saw caste between them. The film is about caste but amongst these characters, caste isn’t a factor. So Gaura in the end has a human moment where she wants to thank him. Why on earth would you imagine that I, who’s making a film denouncing the caste hierarchy, would end up perpetuating it?
I don’t know but there could be a subconscious bias because you and I, as upper caste men, will never be as intimately familiar with the horrors of caste-based oppression as someone who’s actually gone through it.
There’s a lot of work that’s gone in making the film. A lot of literatures that’s been read, documentaries seen, activists and journalists interviewed. So i would be seriously surprised and shocked if what you’re saying is true. And since it’s subconscious, I would not know, it’s only for others to know.
In his essay on the white saviour industrial complex, Teju Cole notes that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them. Did you ever think of having the creative participation of someone from the Dalit community?
From a cast and crew of 300 people, I don’t know the caste of any person. I was casting actors and not casting them based on caste. If someone came up to me and said I am a Kaiyasth, there’s going to be a red mark in my head. I’m not going to recruit people based on their caste. Because that’s casteist.
In fact, there’s this friend of mine whose house I would often go to, we eat and drink together and he happens to be the head of department in our production. He randomly pointed out that he’s a Dalit. I didn’t even know that he was! And it didn’t matter because to me, everybody is equal. So their voices are there, no. I don’t know the caste of my actors, maybe some of them are.
I looked up. They aren’t. And ideally, it shouldn’t matter, but representation matters. Inclusivity matters. Because Bollywood, which is upper-caste dominated, isn’t a level-playing field where opportunities are equal. The charge of this being a casteist argument is void because it’s how affirmative action works - incentivising a marginalised group, especially when the narrative rests on their stories.
That will never be my consideration. Whether it’s the actors I choose or the HoD’s I choose, that won’t be my concern, my concern would be merit. As far as the writing goes, I would read Anand Teltumbde’s Republic of Caste, I would read Juthan. I spoke to Ashwaq Masoodi, Radhika Podia, a lot of people. But I am not going to look at the caste while casting. I’ve a driver who has worked for me for 20 years. My child has played in his arms. But I’ve never asked his caste. While making the film, I did, out of curiosity. But it had never mattered, it still doesn’t.
You’ve called out a lot of politicians in the film. From digs at Yogi Adityanath to Mayawati, but then you’ve also thanked Yogi in the opening credits, someone who heads the state which is witnessing such lawlessness.
It’s what you have to do when you apply for subsidy in certain states. So that’s that.
Did you think about the contradiction in Zee backing such a film? Their news channel is pretty propagandist.
They are tooth and nail into this film and I honestly have no idea how that works.
From making Dus and Cash to Mulk and Article 15, how did this sudden transformation happen?
It isn’t very conscious. As an artist, I am just responding to the times we’re living in. The other day, Anurag, Sudhir, Hansal, Subhash, all my friends were here. And one of them asked me, “What have you been smoking?”
So Anurag said, “No, ask him, what was he smoking then?”
Truth is, I was always this person, but in the middle, commercial success got to me and I got caught in the system. Tum Bin, my first film, wasn’t a massive hit but it became big on home video. I got stars interested in me because a lot of star wives had seen the film and they made their husbands watch it. For real.
All this while, I’ve been jealous of Hansal Mehta and Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap. Once in Goa, I was drunk with Vishal who told me what the fuck am I doing? Why am I not making the film I’m capable of?
That was very discomforting. Movies are a reflection of your personality. I was restless to get back to this kind of cinema. But the system wouldn’t let me. Someone would say, “Oh, Ajay has the dates, let’s do a quick action film.”
Are you proud of those films?
Some I am, some I am quite ashamed of. I am okay with Cash and Dus but Tathastu I am quite ashamed of. It was a straight life of John Q. Back those days, you were living in an environment where everyone was doing it so you didn’t even realise it was wrong. But in hindsight it was a shameful thing to do.