The film opens with Adivasis being beaten by anti-Naxal forces for collecting forest produce. As one of them washes his wounds in a river, seeing the flow invisibilising the red colour, he wishes their worries would disappear like their blood does in the water. For Adivasis, the most fundamental presumption in criminal law, innocent until proven guilty, has been inaccessible; they are treated as criminals until proven otherwise. This denial of basic rights forms the crux of 19-20-21.
Based on the true story of journalist Vittala Malekudiya and his father Lingappa Malekudiya, who were arrested from Kutlur in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district in 2012, the film by the award-winning director Mansore tries to make it so realistic that it almost feels like a documentary.
19-20-21 focuses on the misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa) to arrest a young Adivasi student, Manju (Shrunga B.V.), and his father from Kudumale forest, a Naxal-affected area where anti-Naxal forces tend to harass the Adivasis, on the assumption that they have links with Naxals, for speaking in Tulu—a language the forces don’t understand—and as an attempt to dehumanise them, a central theme of systematic discrimination. Both are reflexive: the violence of the forces and the fearful existence of the Adivasis.
When illiteracy is weaponised, education can become a threat. Manju was the first among his community to go to college, to read about Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh and see life beyond the oppression. While the forces came up with rules to strip his family and neighbours of all rights, Dalit activist Siddalingaiah’s Kannada poem, Yaarige bantu ellige bantu nalavatttelara swatantrya (For whom, and where did the freedom of ’47 come?), echoes in Manju’s classroom. Manju, who starts questioning the violence, is arrested.
The court proceedings in the second half of the film are bound to remind audiences of the 2021 Tamil-language film Jai Bhim, directed by T. J. Gnanavel, which focused on the injustice faced by Adivasis. Unlike Jai Bhim, however, 19-20-21 has no hero. Even though the story centres on Manju’s arrest, Mansore’s focus remains the Adivasi community. Even in a montage that shows the ways in which the forces attempt to crush their spirit, the scenes and the background score are intended to present a glimpse of reality.
Moreover, Jai Bhim relied on the stardom of actor Suriya to give it a lift to the headlines. As I watched 19-20-21, a film with no popular stars, in an almost empty theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder if the trade-off of a star presence is the only way to fill the seats for these films.
19-20-21 aims to serve as a reminder that the Constitution is sacrosanct. As Manju’s lawyer (Balaji Manohar) explains the film’s title, Articles 19, 20 and 21, in a pivotal scene, it highlights the stark difference in the intention and implementation of constitutional rights. Towards the end, after nine years of fighting a label that comes with the no-questions-asked ostracisation, Manju has a simple question, “For all the punishment that I have suffered, what was the crime?” It’s a rhetorical question, it has to be, because the answer is in the silence.
The ensemble cast performs well, with Shrunga and Manohar in particular delivering nuanced, powerful performances. In some places, the screenplay tends lose its grip. But the film leaves you with poignant questions and comes as flicker of rare hope.
In the final scenes, as Ambedkar’s photo hangs next to the judge delivering the verdict and Manju, wearing the blue colour associated with Dalit-Adivasi resistance, stands in the back, I remember Ambedkar’s words at the All India Conference of the Depressed Classes in 1942, “I shall always be with you as I know you will be with me."