tv & movies

‘Flags and songs are not nationalism’

In the run-up to the release of ‘Article 15’, a film on caste politics, Anubhav Sinha talks about using films to talk about the idea of India, while keeping the popular idiom of cinema intact.

Anubhav Sinha’s Ayushmann Khurana-starrer Article 15 opens the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival today, a week before its commercial release. The impassioned trailer and the contentious issue of caste politics that the film evidently deals with made one expect the worst for it at the hands of the censors. But the film has got cleared with four “very insignificant”, “minor” cuts and the mandatory insertion of a disclaimer. “They didn’t touch the content at all. I must applaud them for this. The examining committee meeting went on for two-and-a-half hours, the revising committee went on for 30 seconds,” says Sinha.

On the eve of his departure to the UK, The Hindu met the busy filmmaker at his Andheri office. “Even if it was a plain love story I would be running around with too many things to do—technical, post production. This is special. It’s taking more [of a] toll on me,” he said before settling down for a long interview.

The trailer came like a sock on the jaw, despite Ayushmann Khurrana posting some pictures on social media. Were you deliberately quiet on the film?

I don’t apply too much [of my] mind [to it]. There was no planning. Ayushmann and I spoke about it [the film] in October. We had met for something else. I ended up telling him this story. He took over from there. Within three months after having met him for the first time I was shooting. This period also involved his wife’s unfortunate ailment, two of his releases. It happened very fast. It may not be the best marketing thing to do but I don’t like talking about my film until I have finished it. We have all grown up on Amitabh Bachchan so we root for reticent people.

Since the title is Article 15, was the Constitution the trigger for it?

I was very affected by this phenomenon [caste-based discrimination] in our country and for the longest. I have been very angry about it. As media has grown, at least in terms of its reach, you get to hear about it more often. It affects you more often. I didn’t have a title for the film. The working title was Kanpur Dehat, is a small district near Kanpur. Like Bombay-New Bombay. But I realised I didn’t want it to be the story of one specific place. The country is conveniently ignorant about [the issue] any way. The idea was to highlight that it was happening all over the country.

I was looking for another title to make it more generic. One day I was sitting with [filmmaker] Sudhir Mishra and my co-writer Gaurav Solanki. We were brainstorming on the title. We looked up the Constitution and realised that its Article 15 was the most apt title to describe the film. Earlier everyone was asking if I would change the title but now they have converted, think that it is a very exciting title.

It may seem digressive but since the title of your film harks back to the Constitution, what does the Constitution mean to you?

What is a country to begin with? It’s a set of people, in an area of land who decide to live together and give themselves an identity by a name, flag, boundary. There has to be a manner in which they would live together. That rulebook is called the Constitution. If you don’t follow it, if it doesn’t impact you on a day to day basis, then there is something wrong with your understanding of the concept of a country. You can sing all the songs, you can hoist all the flags but there is manner in which you are expected to live in this country and that will define this country.

How much sanctity do you attribute to the Constitution?

A lot, especially in a country as young and diverse as India.

Are you open to it being changed?

Before we talk about changing it, we must figure if we fully implemented it and [if] it failed. You build a road first from Bombay to Poona, then drive your cars on it and figure out that these are the problems and then you fix those problems. The Constitution itself allows you to amend it. But I don’t think we ever fully implemented it. I don’t know if there is a flaw, if it needs to be amended unless it’s for extremely political reasons and right now the country has become so political that the social half of politics is missing. It’s only the political half of politics that is being discussed.

Before Mulk we associated you with a certain kind of cinema. Things seem to have changed after that. Was it a person or situation that triggered the change or was it something gradual that we may not have noticed?

Anurag [Kashyap], [filmmaker] Vishal Bhardwaj, Sudhir Mishra, [filmmaker] Hansal Mehta are people I have known since the time I came to Mumbai. One tweet from Hansal and one phone conversation with Anurag answers your question. When Hansal saw the film he tweeted “what a fantastic debut of Anubhav Sinha”. Anurag messaged me from the interval in the film: “Ab aaya na boss wapas (The boss has finally returned).

I think I was always this person. If you see my early work, my first TV show called Shikast and a lot of Sea Hawks. I think I was dealing with a misplaced definition of success. Meri picture uski picture se badi hai ki nahin (Is my film is bigger than his?). Much later I figured that that’s not success. Success is saying what you want to say effectively and successfully. It seems sudden but it was brewing inside me as to why I make films. I felt very strongly about Mulk. My Banaras came out. Making that film, releasing it, the amount of love I got for it was such a liberating feeling that I got addicted to it. Now all the films I am working on are about things that I feel very strongly about. Which could be a phase, or last a lifetime. I don’t know.

Could it be a response to what you were saying earlier, about the country having become very political?

When I hear of nationalism in my country today from the youngsters, I want to sit them down and tell them that flags and songs are not nationalism. Stopping at the traffic signal, opening the door for a lady, doing something for your country is nationalism. I want to present them with this perspective. The flag, the anthem, the national song were meant to celebrate a country. They are not the country; they are means to celebrate the country. You and I are the country. I try to present it to them in various ways. Mulk was one, Article 15 is another. If you build the country the flag will go higher and higher on its own. You don’t need to worry about the flag; the flag is worried about you.

Were there your own experiences that came back to you while writing Article 15, just as they did in Mulk?

My mother learnt something from her mother and she must have learnt it from her mother. Things have been passed on. Society must have been of a certain kind when I was growing up that I could question. I could ask why the surname was so important. Society, at that time, was built in a manner that these questions were allowed. I see more and more resistance to these questions these days.

This is such a wonderful, talented country. Sometimes I think it’s a conspiracy that we can do everything but can’t build schools. This has happened over 70 years. The day we build schools they will start asking the right questions. Nobody likes the right questions; our politics loves to deal with the wrong questions. We should have done way better. This is the zeal of the average Indian that the country has travelled this far. There are probably only two nationalities that are as tenacious and talented: India and China. These people know how to rise from the ashes.

Despite dealing with politically charged subjects, your language of cinema is very popular and massy…

It’s very conscious and I have put a lot of effort into it. There is no point in making an incomprehensible film. I don’t live in Europe. There is a certain literacy and palate of the country and I have to reach out to that. I remember [senior film critic and journalist] Anupama Chopra, she was all praise for the film, used a phrase in her review which I don’t mind actually: “Subtle as a sledgehammer”. But I wasn’t looking for subtlety, I was looking at communicating. I want to grab the audience, look into their eyes and say it. We have divided our Hindu society in such thin slices of caste with a lot of subtlety over a thousand years. Now you can’t deal with it with subtlety, it will take another 2000 years [to get rid of it]. I am very happy and proud to not be subtle.

Article 15 is less verbose than Mulk but I have done my bit in it to reach out to everyone. We are the country and we will make the change and I need to talk to the whole country. There is no point in talking to the Colaba audience because it is already converted.

Everybody within his or her means, needs to do whatever he or she can do, to talk, communicate and express. Desh kehne se banta hai aur sun-ne se banta hai (Nation is built by saying and by listening). Country is not some mythical character, I am the country, you are the country.

Caste issues have largely been dealt with in regional films or in parallel cinema, not so much in the realm of popular Hindi films, with odd exceptions like Achhut Kanya, Sujata, or a track in Lagaan or Masaan recently…

I wonder why. At times it has also been like the black man in a white film. Or like a Muslim in a Bollywood film who is either very good or very bad. Normal aadmi nahin hota Musalman, na Dalit. That only enhances the problem. It segregates. Segregation was the idea whether it was the Ku Klux Klan movement or our own cast hierarchy.

I am from a very vague caste. I don’t belong to any of the four. I am kayastha. They are well read, largely clerks so they get treated respectfully. I have never been affected personally by the system but I can’t deal with a man going into the manhole. India is launching satellites for other countries but we can’t get rid of this [manual scavenging]. According to me we should be able to get rid of this in a week. But we don’t do it. The people don’t have a voice. They are not allowed the bandwidth.

There is also this debate about how caste portrayal in Hindi cinema comes from people who are themselves privileged. Only recently are we seeing Dalit filmmakers come forward. Even making a film on Dalit oppression has been the privilege of the upper castes…

If a person makes a mistake, admits and then corrects it, what better than that? Why would you want to see it as a privilege? See it as an admission. See it as setting an example for those who haven’t done things correctly. The privilege is being questioned by the privileged. You are not letting the Dalits drink water and you want them to make a film about themselves.

[On the other hand] there is some Brahman Samaj that is angry about it. Please be angry, we all need to be angry. [They are saying] that we have disrespected Brahmins. There are Brahmins involved in the film, can’t you see it? What are they talking about? Go get a life? There are legal notices and threats to movie theatres. Nobody is half as angry about the 90 kids who have died in the same state. It is hitting the right spot but it is unnecessary stress. A legal notice is a legal notice is a legal notice. There are crores involved. I will recover the money after the film releases, until then I have invested money.

There is a strong supporting cast in the film…

Half of them I have become addicted to. I can’t make a film without Kumud [Mishra], Manoj [Pahwa]. Taapsee [Pannu] comes to mind each time I write a film, next favorite is Ayushmann [Khurrana]…

How intense was the research for the film?

We read a lot of books. The most helpful was that red one [points at Republic of Caste by Anand Teltumbde]. I read Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki. That was very helpful. You will see a lot of headlines in the film if you have been reading the newspapers carefully. It’s from newspapers. But you can’t say it’s that one incident or character. I have done my best to shield them but you will very clearly be able to identify.

What is coming up next?

I am surely going to make two films a year now. I finish a film in 30 days, start editing on location so by the time I come back, in a month I have the first cut of the film ready. If one has got this rhythm then lets do to films. Next will be with Taapsee that I shoot in mid-August. Mrinmayee Lagoo has co-written the film. It’s again very relevant, something I have felt about strongly. It comes out on International Women’s Day next year. So it’s about you. It’s about the women of this country.

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