Article 15 and the habit of second-guessing what viewers want

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 09, 2019 10:47 hrs
Article 15

In some activist circles that I am part of, the common refrain is that casteism is to India what racism is to the USA. This is patently false. Firstly, casteism affects nearly three times more people in India (70% Indians) than the entire population of the USA.

Secondly, there is no one single Ku Klux Klan sort of organization like in the US that is pervading caste myths. It is peddled by every Indian – even those suffering from it.

Thirdly, there is no north-south divide i.e. one part of the country much more actively perpetrating it than the other like in the US. Every Indian who believes in caste is an equal participant.

Fourthly, casteism is much more deep-seated in the Indian subcontinent because unlike in the US, skin-colour is not its only determinant.

Yet in most dictionaries, casteism isn't even a word. And you have to instead say 'caste-based discrimination and prejudice'.

So here's my contention: casteism isn't akin to racism, it's worse. Much worse than even someone suffering its poison can imagine.

Art, the cliche goes, is the mirror of society. Racism and even anti-Semitism has found sufficient representation in art. Take cinema for instance. If you look at the Oscar-nominated films of the last 50 years, you'll see that the number of films fighting racism being made and nominated increased exponentially. Indeed, the rumour is that a good, sensitive film on race is a shortcut to the Oscars.

Thus, a foreigner aware of the evil of casteism would expect India to make a lot of films on caste. But look at what we end up making. Even a film like Sairat with caste as its central theme, when remade in Hindi, surprisingly ends up becoming about class. A Kaala may be a welcome fantasy but is a rare, once in a decade sort of phenomenon.

It is in this context of an unconcerned, purely mediocre commercial Indian cinema where even the gods of 'different' cinema within it have consistently failed the real issues of the nation, that one must look at what an achievement Article 15 directed by Anubhav Sinha and written by him and Gaurav Solanki is.

For the first time in India's commercial cinema we have a film that not only does not hold back its punches, it derives new methods to knock out both the audience and the issue of caste and it does so in as realistic a manner as possible without resorting to fantasy to make the truth more palatable.

It is so blatant in its criticism of caste, that I saw the film with my hand covering my mouth, wondering how did the producers get away from the snip-happy Indian censors. It is nothing but sheer miracle that Article 15 got made and is running in theatres.

That brings me to why there aren't more such films on the pressing issues of the country, made here. Is it that writers don't know what is happening in the country, directors don't care, a case of extreme self-censorship or is it the case of an insensitive nation that really doesn't care about injustice to others?

The problem with an outsider (even a film critic or entertainment writer is honestly an outsider) looking at films, is that she does not really know how a film ends up getting made in the first place. There is no great Edison bulb that suddenly glows in the mind of one person and she goes about lighting it in others till that light becomes a film and people appreciate or deride it in theatres.

If you want to know how almost anything that reaches your screens - be it the big screen, TV or mobile – gets made, you'll find the perfect analogy in Article 15 when IPS Ayan Ranjan summons cops from the neighbouring police stations to go through a huge, dirty, muck-filled swamp and barely anyone turns up. Making a film is literally that – someone or a group calling hundreds or thousands of others to wade through disgusting muck, all in the hope of making a film which viewers can appreciate.

And this is the truth of cinema: there is no one particular way a film gets made. A single film is a hotchpotch of so many people and ideas that its very existence is a miracle. If cricket is a team sport that demands the undivided attention of 11 people and dozen-odd support staff for five days at maximum, a film needs at least a thousand people to do that for months, at times years.

And like the censors, there are many people along the way who try to snip away at the very essence of the idea for a film. And if you don't have a strong captain i.e. a director who knows where she is going, a film ends up far away from its intended destination.

It's not that the bad film you saw was necessarily a bad idea from the start. No producer would approve a bad story or a story she is not convinced about. It is just that the good bits got chipped away as it passed from one hand to another.

The ones doing most of the chipping are studio executives hired explicitly to give opinions during story and script stage. Now, the ones who are aware and knowledgeable do a great job. But in the overcrowded marketplace, most of the people who take up these often high profiles and high paying jobs, are people who at times know little about how a film works or even the history of cinema. These are dilettantes who're suddenly looked upon as experts and hence act like one as well.

These executives are among those in the filmmaking hierarchy who pretend to know what the audience wants, but all they really know are the last few hit films and thus are looking for and end up approving cheap replicas of the same that lose money instead of trying to make something new and bold that could stun audiences and make money like Article 15 does.

If only people who think they know what the audience wants, raise their empty heads to look up, they'd see what people really want staring at them. Let me state this obvious fact once and for all, and if you are a studio executive, I hope you remember this that "what viewers of commercial cinema want are well-crafted films that say something entirely new or the same old thing in a new, interesting and unexpected way and that can hold their attention till the last shot by hook or by crook.”

This - what might seem obvious but strangely is not - every good director, writer and producer know. This is what Anubhav Sinha knows, the reason why and how he made Article 15. This is what Ayushmann Khurrana knows, the reason why instead of signing films that will have him romance heroines around trees, he agrees to act in one where he has to literally wade through the muck and dirty water, about a subject that has little precedence in commercial cinema.

This is also what audiences in general know. The reason why every time a good film comes to the theatre, no matter the length, genre, actors or number of theatres it's released in, they flock to see, like they have done for so many films in the past. Like they are doing now for Article 15.

Article 15 is thus another wakeup call to the people living inside the bubble called Indian commercial film industry. Because it is time directors, writers, producers, studio executives stop second-guessing what an audience might or might not want to see and instead focus our energies on telling a particular story in the best possible way. This, more than anything else, is a sure-shot guarantee of box office success.

(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)

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