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19(1)(a) review: A beautiful film on knowing and expressing

Indhu VS's film is about the power of words—spoken and written—and how through them we can learn intimately about ourselves and others

Nithya Menen in '19(1)(a)'

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A wide shot opens 19(1)(a) directed by Indhu V.S. It’s the early hours of the morning. A man locks his room at a seedy lodge in Dharmapuri and walks along the length of the frame and climbs down. He orders tea, a vehicle’s headlight blinds him and then shots end his life.  We soon move to the immediate neighbour Kerala where a woman begins her day. Indhu who is also the film’s writer doesn’t give this woman—played by Nithya Menen—a name. She is a citizen, an everywoman managing a rundown photo copying shop with a monitor that requires a few taps to work. 

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The initial portions of 19(1)(a) are some of the finest visual moments in recent times telling us everything we need to know about the characters. Through her phone we learn that her peers have moved on to bigger and better things in life, her father increasing the volume of the television when she returns home from work tells us that their relationship is fragile. Her only friends—stretching the definition here—are a man who is a part-time activist and a fellow saleswoman next door. She’s so preoccupied with her mundane but stressful life that she cuts off her friend before she could rant about something. The remarkable nugget about Indhu’s film is that she gives every character—minor or major—a shade. Everyone in her life appears only for a brief spell in the film—be it the saleswoman, the part time activist who takes a job because home comes first and a woman reporter who simply feels kind towards her. All these arcs talk about freedom and implicit, conditioned silence. After all, Article (19)(1)(a) of the constitution deals with the freedom of expression.

Gauri Shankar (Vijay Sethupathi) walks into the photocopy shop and leaves his manuscript. The woman wonders if she should bind the new copies and he tells her to do as she wishes. It’s a rare moment of autonomy for her, like someone wrapped a gift and left it at the doorstep for her to find when she pulls down the shutters at the end of the day. It becomes her newest and lasting possession, something she feels responsible for once she finds out that Gauri won’t be returning. 

A lot of things about Indhu’s film is habitually quaint and old fashioned. They exist and they are ubiquitous but the idea of a photocopy shop with STD/ISD painted and faintly visible on the outside walls is old fashioned. A writer with a handwritten manuscript is common but one written on mouldered paper is somehow extrinsic to contemporariness. There is also a confluence of religions—Gauri steps into the shop following a procession of St. George festival (soon after this Gauri comments on snakes in the mountains and manmade roads on his way to Idukki) and the saleswoman is a Muslim. The idea of such unison might be just another day in Kerala but is almost utopian in ideal in the larger scheme of things.

In a country where people who speak the truth, report hate crimes or protest are incarcerated, the idea of freedom of expression is quaint. The murder of a writer—shot point blank—of course reminds us of Gauri Lankesh and assassinations of other rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare. But Indhu’s film is not loud, its muted gratifications lie in how she lingers over some shots for us to consider the character’s uncertain emotions and inchoate rage. We see it when pennkutty (that’s how Menen is credited) is first annoyed when her friend has less than ideal things to say about her cooking and then a few seconds later smiles to herself (Nithya Menen is fabulous in how she signs off her scenes, holding on long enough to keep us guessing). The camera stays put as she closes shop and there are only men walking the streets. 

The unsafe environs of a revolutionary male writer and that of a simple woman with no time to consider everyday news hit different. The conversation between writer Gauri and his publisher Anand (Indrajith Sukumaran) suggests something more than a friendship and professional relationship. In a scene late in the film Gauri’s work takes the front seat of Anand’s car that Gauri once did, a moment that gives life to his final words.

19(1)(a) is essentially about how fact and fiction coalesce into a single lifeform no matter how much we try to distinguish them. It’s about the power of words—spoken and written—and how through them we can learn intimately about ourselves first and then others. Less than five parting words from Gauri changes our protagonist’s life. And how she gets to know him intimately through others and his work only frees her from the shackles of mundanity. 

It’s a tiny role for Vijay Sethupathi but one wholesome enough to remind us of what he’s capable of. It’s in that turn and the smile that he gives Anand in the car. Their exchanges that seek in Malayalam and offer in Tamil. Indhu’s film is a film of knowing—of people and events—and how that awareness can help us grow and better express ourselves.

19(1)(a) is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

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