Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind kickstarts Anubhav Sinha’s latest drama Article 15, with the single’s thematically appropriate opening words—“How many roads must a man walk before you call him a man?”—setting up the kind of movie you’re about to watch. Equal parts crime thriller and sociopolitical drama, the film establishes both internal and external conflicts in its first ten minutes. Viewers are made aware of the murders of two teenage girls in a village with a fractured power structure and flexible lawmaker behavior. Taking a host of inspired cues from Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988) and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s En folkfiende (Eng.: An Enemy of the People, 1882), Sinha and his co-writer whip up a story that’s hard-hitting and thoroughly uncomfortable to watch in all the ways it should be, but doesn’t favor inducing forced tension.
Between moments that leave you on the edge of your seat—the buildup of each of these moments is crafted to feel thoroughly like a horror film—there are exchanges the film’s protagonist Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana; Andhadhun, 2018) has with his significant other Aditi (Isha Talwar; Ranam: Detroit Crossing, 2018) that are rather quiet and introspective. The two talk about anything between classism, gender equality, and existential crises, and while there are notes of theatricality, those don’t throw a wet blanket over just how perfect the overall narrative flow in these scenes actually feel. Much like Sinha’s Dus (2005) or Ra.One (2011), Article 15 seems unbothered by the trend of consistent pacing, going instead for what feels right in the moment, for both the film and the characters who live in its universe.
If there is anything that threatens to pull Article 15 down every now and then, it’s the uneven soundtrack. While the movie is practically songless, the score almost feels like it’s overcompensating for something the film narratively lacks—which, really, it doesn’t. Another relatively smaller issue with the film is its continuity. A scene in which a bunch of people enter a swamp is followed by them on land with their trousers and footwear practically unaffected. That doesn’t feel like much of a detraction however, although some tighter script supervision would have turned it a whole lot more immersive. Then again, there’s just so much to love—the fantastic sound design, Yasha Ramchandani’s patient edit decisions, the use of light and color in Ewan Mulligan’s stunningly photographed frames; they’re all sublime.
Of course, there’s the cast. While Khurrana and Talwar are naturally bankable—you’d wish Talwar had more to do with the movie, because her character was established to do a lot, but there ain’t much of a payoff other than her being a traditional support system—but it’s Kumud Mishra, Sayani Gupta, Manoj Pahwa, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub taking the entire bakery here. Mishra and Pahwa are, of course, absolutely smashing character actors, but Gupta and Ayyub, throughout their presence in the movie, have the power to literally appeal to your humanity and break you down with their range and authenticity. M. Nassar (Vishwaroopam, 2013) is adequate for the short time he’s in, but he’s beaten to the punch by Ronjini Chakraborty (Tumbbad, 2018), who breathes fire throughout the movie’s runtime.
Very few socioeconomic and political dramas and thrillers in India are able to achieve what Article 15 has—much less those based on true events—but Sinha, whose films have walked on to have a voice that is angrier, more vocal, and considering the politically unstable times we live in, all the more necessary for those reasons, packs in so much narrative grace and artistic visual filmmaking verve, it’s hard to look away through the 140 minutes it powers through. (The decision to do away with an intermission really helps). If you’re planning your weekend with a movie and are looking for Indian films to watch, make this one a priority in your list. It’s dramatic, and has some technical filmmaking dips, but none of those make you want to look away, even though you’d most definitely want to—and there are moments throughout its runtime in which you’ll definitely want to.