Revisiting Badaun, the Case That Inspired Ayushmann’s ‘Article 15’

How closely are the real and reel versions related?

7 min read
Ayushmann Khurrana stars in <i>Article 15</i>, which is based on the 2014 Badaun rape case.

In 2014, I spent several weeks in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, for an investigative documentary on the double hangings of two teenaged girls. We were trying to piece together what happened under the mango tree that fatal night. Murder, honour killing or suicide? Was it a violent caste crime, or a fatal inter-caste love story? Did the girls choose to end their lives, were they forced to end their lives or was it staged to look like what it wasn’t?

The village of Badaun made headlines in 2014 after two teenaged girls were found hanging from a mango tree.
The village of Badaun made headlines in 2014 after two teenaged girls were found hanging from a mango tree.
(Photo: Mayurica Biswas)

This was a case where everyone was a suspect – the accuser and the accused. No one had pieced together the 10 hours between the girls’ disappearance and the discovery of their bodies the next morning. All speculations of how the girls died were as possible or impossible as the other. There was evidence to support and discard all theories. But the case never reached trial. So, will we ever know what really happened that night? Probably not! But the movies can always hazard a guess.

Badaun: From Real to Reel

When the trailer of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 dropped with an obvious reference to Badaun, I was intrigued. True crime has always been fodder for films, and there’s a massive appetite for these stories in India too. People want to see what they read in the news, but in a real aesthetic. They want to go behind-the-scenes of a crime to see how police work cases, or what drives an individual to commit a murder. So, when I learnt an actor like Ayushmann Khurrana, who revels in realism, was part of Badaunscape, I was definitely curious about this version. Would there be a new spin on the evidence? Would there be a fresh take on the investigation?

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 is a gripping whodunnit. It’s also set against that haunting crime scene with those two girls hanging from that solitary mango tree. His story too is a web of lies and political intrigue that turns a seemingly open and shut case into a classic mystery with twists and red herrings. But he doesn’t confine it to just the case.

Badaun’s contribution to the film is largely atmospheric. Anubhav Sinha plucks the set-up, but not the story. He picks the caste and gender conversations, but not the characters. He retains the intensity, but layers it with humour.

He recreates the brutality but doesn’t linger on. He tells you what it’s like to police ‘the wild, wild West’ but doesn’t follow the fate of the real ones. And yet, somehow he beautifully captures the soul of this tale.

The crew behind the 2015 documentary <i>Voices Under the Mango Tree</i>, which is based on the Badaun case.
The crew behind the 2015 documentary Voices Under the Mango Tree, which is based on the Badaun case.
(Photo: Mayurica Biswas)

It may sound odd, but our city-bred crew’s early experiences in Badaun were not far from the ones that were written out for Ayushmann’s Ayan Ranjan. Within a day or two, we realised there was this cloud of secrecy that shrouded the village. Everyone had something to hide, or a perspective they did not want to reveal. There were layers, waiting to be peeled. And threats that had to be negotiated. In fact, on the very second day of our shoot, as we were filming the mango tree at dusk, the outpost in-charge of the police station came up to our team and subtly warned us about staying back after dark. He said we were pretty much on our own, and there was little he could do to protect us in ‘tamancha land’. I must admit, he spooked us out a bit.

While Article 15’s Lalgaon is dotted with treacherous pig swamps, the real Badaun has the dangerous Katri belt – large island sand banks on the Ganges that are almost inaccessible. You either swim across or take a boat. A couple of decades ago, they were home to some of the most feared dacoits in the region, but these days the Katri is used for contractual kidnapping and local gun making.

So, if there is a recurring motif that binds Article 15’s Lalgaon to the Badaun case, it’s the idea that both these places are not innocent to caste- and gender-based violence.

It’s not unusual for women in these parts to get abducted, raped and abandoned. Cases often go unreported to not only protect the reputation of the girl’s family but also to avoid antagonising the more powerful perpetrators. Rape is so common that we discovered a traditional saying that goes, “Raat gayi, baat gayi.” Roughly paraphrased, “When the night’s gone, the act is best forgotten.”

The residents of Badaun village are reluctant to speak to outsiders about the 2014 double hangings.
The residents of Badaun village are reluctant to speak to outsiders about the 2014 double hangings.
(Photo: Mayurica Biswas)

Be it Badaun or Lalgaon, in both these stories, the police are found wanting – whether it’s apathy towards the victim’s family, delay in registering an FIR, crime scene mismanagement or biased investigations. But go deeper, and realities emerge. If Manoj Pahwa’s Circle Officer talks about negotiating local powers amidst changing bosses, we met a cop who told us, "The average person to police ratio is 1:1000. We have two police outposts covering 60 to 70 villages among 30 constables. We have roads that don’t let us drive over 30 km/hr. And then we are at the mercy of politicians who transfer us for decisions that don’t please them. We work 24x7, are transferred every two or three months, our families can’t be with us. Despite this, no matter what we do, we are inevitably the villains in most cases."

But all is not bleak. Months later, we were told that there has been an increase in the number of lady constables to ensure quick evidence collection in crimes against women. Change in postings policy now ensures that cops are posted at least 200 km away from their homes to avoid home bias. Over the years, the UP Police has also massively upgraded itself – for instance UP100, modelled along the lines of 911, is an AI-enabled emergency management system that can respond to callers anywhere in the state within 15 to 20 minutes.

5 Years on, the Badaun Rape Case Remains a Mystery

Having said that, unlike Article 15, which has a clear sense of closure, the real story of the Badaun sisters continues to stay unsolved. To this date, we don’t really know what happened. But if we were to construct the sequence of events based on circumstantial evidence and old-school detective methods, one of more intriguing finds is that the Yadavs in this story don’t follow the traditional narrative, where they are usually painted as men of influence and aggression. In this village of Katra Sadatganj, where the crime took place, they are neither landed nor powerful. They are part of a part of a migrant minority settlement of about 50 families living in a ghetto at the edge of the village. They were displaced from their own land a few years ago due to the erosion of the Ganges. It’s the victims’ community of Shakyas who call the shots in this village.

The events that led to the death of two teenaged girls in Badaun remain a mystery.
The events that led to the death of two teenaged girls in Badaun remain a mystery.
(Photo: Mayurica Biswas)

The other startling find was that the accused boy Pappu Yadav and the girls were friends and had in fact met up earlier in the day. Apart from over 400 calls between them retrieved from phone records, there is evidence to suggest they had arranged to meet so he could lend them money to go to the local fair the next day. This money was found in the clothing of the older girl by the postmortem team.

Further forensic evidence analysed by a team of experts from AIIMS continues to question the rape theory. While there was reddening of the private parts and a tear in the hymen of the older victim, the Board deduced that the discoloration was not an injury, but due to the pooling of blood caused by 14 hours of hanging. The blood clots in the younger girl were in fact menstrual blood, as proven by stained cloths found in her undergarments.

But the most stunning twist in the tale was when the key eyewitness who had originally claimed that a few Yadav men had kidnapped the girls changed his story. He told us on camera, “The truth is I saw the older girl with Pappu. I beat him up then and there [in the fields]. Pappu escaped after the scuffle and the girls ran into the fields. I rushed immediately towards the girls’ house in the village, but didn’t reveal the whole truth. I just said I had just seen thieves in the fields. Only when we could not find the girls, I told everyone that night that Pappu had kidnapped them. I thought if I only named Pappu, the secret affair would be discovered. So I added a pistol along with two or three men to my story.”

According to the soil samples on their feet, the girls possibly fled and hid in a nearby eucalyptus grove. What happened after that is anybody’s guess. CBI’s investigations suggest suicide, but many remain unconvinced.

The story of the Badaun hangings goes beyond that one night. And in a way Article 15 captures it all. If the film sometimes feels like a checklist for all our social evils, it’s really not far from the truth.

The Badaun case too was a study in caste, sexual and religious politics, the lack of agency of rural Indian women, apathy of the local administration and the paucity of basic facilities for India's rural poor. But what really works for Article 15 is that this mainstream Hindi feature film almost effortlessly deep dives into serious issues without compromising on its entertainment quotient.

(Mayurica Biswas is a documentary filmmaker and director of ‘Voices Under the Mango Tree’, an investigative documentary on the Badaun double hangings that took place in 2014. She often spends months following a story and is now chasing law enforcement authorities across Asia for her next doc series on the future of policing.)

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