If Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana had his way, he would expunge the concept of India’s intricate caste system from young impressionable minds.
“Why do children need to know about the various castes? As a kid, when you know you are a Brahmin [considered upper caste] or a Shudra [considered lower caste], you suddenly begin to judge people. It’s just not right,” said Khurrana in an interview with tabloid!.
It’s an unusually sobering conversation with a mainstream Indian actor best known for his excellent comic timing in blockbusters such as ‘Badhaai Ho’, ‘Shubh Mangal Savdhaan’ and ‘Vicky Donor’.
But Khurrana is the lead actor in director Anubhav Sinha’s procedural thriller ‘Article 15’, out in the UAE on June 27. He plays a senior police officer who’s investigating the rape and murder of two minor girls in a village segregated by caste lines. “It’s a serious subject, a relevant one… Article 15 is a hard-hitting film that will make you uncomfortable and perhaps trigger a dialogue about change,” said Khurrana, who dubs ‘Article 15’ as his ‘passion project’.
Usually Bollywood heroes stay away from ‘serious cinema’ for the fear of alienating their legion of fans who gravitate towards light-hearted, entertaining films. But Khurrana is keen to use his escalating star power and box-office draw to act in some meaningful, gritty projects.
“My box office success has given me the courage to do a film like this. After every two or three films, I will do a film that is hard-hitting and socially relevant in our society… I am not looking for a certain opening box-office benchmark here. I want to trigger a meaningful dialogue,” Khurrana said.
Excerpts from our interview with Khurrana …
How did director Anubhav Sinha explain Article 15 and what was your take away from the conversation?
It was probably six months ago when we met for the first time. We were discussing [his movie] Mulk and how impressed I was with that film because it gave a different perspective to those belonging to a different community. But he had offered me a romcom first, but I wanted to do something hard-hitting. He told me about this subject, Article 15, and I was impressed by the way he wrote it and his knowledge about the complex caste system in our country. He was pleasantly surprised when he learnt later that I am interested in reading literature about castes. We were also on the same page when it came to the social responsibility of an artist.
The movie dwells on a grisly crime. Did the topic affect you emotionally and mentally and if yes, how did you distance yourself from the morbidity of it all?
This is the first time that something has affected me so deeply while shooting for the film and this is probably my first hard-hitting, dark film. Apart from reading a lot of literature about class divides, I found the entire discrimination intriguing and our prejudices against each other in our country based on caste. Of course, it was affecting me emotionally and mentally, but it worked for my character.
I wasn’t sleeping for three-four days at a stretch and it helped bring out the best in me. In the film, I am trying to fix a situation and in real life too, we have the same purpose. Anubhav Sinha and I are trying to trigger a conversation about our caste divide. I did not distance myself from the morbidity of it. I could afford to do that because we weren’t shooting in Mumbai with my family around.
How familiar were you the Badaun case [2014 gang rape and murder of two teenage girls], which gained global attention and triggered dialogues about crimes against women and children in India and caste discrimination?
I was familiar about the Badaun case, but this film is not based on that case. It’s an amalgamation of many incidents happening in our country. We keep listening, hearing and reading about these incidents day in and day out in newspapers and on social media. We are tackling several issues in this film.
Will this play out like a procedural crime thriller?
Yes, it’s a crime thriller but it’s mostly a social investigative drama. It gives a great message towards the end. In fact throughout the film, it showcases the reality of our nation — of how a cop from the outside gets posted in a rural area. It gives an outsider’s perspective about caste divide in our country. I play Ayan Ranjan, he is from Delhi, studied abroad in the UK. He returns to India to join IPS [Indian Police Services] and he gets posted in a rural area where caste divides are rampant. He is surprised, shocked and tries to fix it in every possible way.
In an earlier interview, you said you interacted with real cops to nail the body language. How else did you prepare for your role?
His brief was that I shouldn’t watch Bollywood films in order to emulate a cop’s role. I met many real-life cops to understand about their working culture. I met Mr Manoj Malviya, a senior IPS officer in Delhi, and several cops in Uttar Pradesh to understand their body language better and how they deal with cases.
What do you want the audience to take away from this film? Does entertainment have to serve a higher purpose?
Audiences should get disturbed by the current situation. We have this permanent prejudice in our brains which is a part of our DNA now. It’s only in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh where we have special utensils for our domestic help or where we can’t share a meal with our chauffeurs. In countries like the US or the UK, this kind of class divide doesn’t exist. This is a basic human rights issue. When you watch our film, you tend to notice such divides and there will be a discussion about it. It will make you uncomfortable and that can probably trigger a change. After you watch the film, you can probably be a part of a change.
What was the most challenging part about your role as a cop and is the issue of police brutality/corruption addressed in this film?
In real life, I am a goof ball who does not take life too seriously. I am a happy-go-luck guy with a happy soul. But this is a grim film, a dark film and this is the first time that I am playing a guy who is mature. Till now I have been playing vulnerable characters on the big screen. For the first time, I am play such a real character.
While I have always empathised with the under-privileged, I was protected while growing up. But I read a lot and I met many people which helped me empathise from within. Yes, the film shows the police brutality and corruption that exists in any field. Our police force is filled with good and bad people, just like how it is in the rest of the world.
Have you ever faced caste discrimination in your life? Do you think reservations for communities is the way forward in India?
I have not faced caste discrimination since I belonged to the so-called privileged class. Surprisingly, I faced discrimination in Australia and in the UK as I was perceived as a desi boy, but not in India. But I have travelled across India doing street plays and street theatre. During that stint, I have seen a lot of discrimination.
I remember, there was a topper in our class who got his admission in my engineering college and my batch mates got to know that he was from a reserved category. That guy [topper] went into a depression since he did not want to reveal his caste which indicates the perpetual predicament of a person living in India.
We have to get rid of the caste system. Why do we study about caste divides in history? Ideally, we should not tell our future generation about the different sections of the society that existed. What’s the point? Regarding reservation, it’s a complicated subject. It has its own pros and cons. I firmly believe that reservation exists only because of discrimination and vice versa. If discrimination goes, reservations will also go.
on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth
“Coming from a privileged class, I am in a protected environment. I haven’t faced discrimination based on my caste. But I remember a batch mate of mine who was a topper in my college. But when the other students got to know he’s from a reserved category, he [the topper] just went into a cocoon.”
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‘Article 15’ is out in the UAE on June 27.