When the Inner Voice crashes into External Violence.
There comes a time when the words that tumble inside your head percolate to your heart, and then when you sit down to pen them, what comes out via the flames of experiences, hindsight, and forethought is the sparkling, distilled truth, the residue a purge of what you’ve been forced to believe or has been thrust as truth. These words, these feelings, these thoughts are your soul’s revelatory. This truth, as Gauri Shankar (Vijay Sethupathi), a polyglot writer and activist, discovers in debut director Indhu V.S.’s 19 (1) (a), can be a burden.
Sethupathi’s character may be a direct reference to slain writer-activist Gauri Lankesh but is also a headstone to all dissenting voices snuffed out by violence. In the movie, Gauri’s penned his latest novel, glimpses of whose genesis the director unveils in flashbacks with the writer’s publisher Anand (Indrajith Sukumaran in a perturbed act, almost as if knowing what’s coming, almost a tacit accessory to vile forces), who also has a discussion with an investigating officer (Deepak Parambol) about Gauri’s philosophical proclivities. There’s the ubiquitous and terrific Indrans—who now must feature in almost every Malayalam movie, even if for a wink and a nod— who plays a cop with his ruminations with Gauri. But it is in an everywoman’s undistinguished photocopying shop that Gauri sets off an act of quiet, disturbing revolution by leaving his handwritten manuscript to be copied and, as its owner agrees, to be bound as well. The woman, unnamed all through the movie, is played by Nithya Menen, who delivers a hypnotic, subterranean performance, her character’s life surrounded by an ache of what could’ve been, kindly support via the environmentally-aware Saghav (Bhagath Baby Manuel), father Gangettan (Srikanth Murali’s haunted by-his-character’s-past act that covers more than any dialogue could) who’s living his life on the slow-moving treadmill of drudgery, and her scooter and photocopier shop—both in danger of sputtering to an uneventful climax. If there’s any spark in her life, it’s her feisty friend Fathima (Athulya Ashadam in a shining supporting—literally—role), who suddenly seems to lose agency in her life in the face of her imminent wedding. And yet, she has something to gripe about because her life was looking up. Her unnamed friend has no such luxury. What do you carp on when there’s nothing to gain or lose?
And when Gauri’s manuscript in her shop gets a life of its own, she begins to connect to the writer’s feelings, inner voice, and truth. It’s this evolution of realization and the pain of what could’ve been that forms her journey via composer Govind Vasantha’s haunting songs and Manesh Madhavan’s still, wondrous cinematography. Director Indhu, also writing the script, uses the movie’s title (the Indian Constitution’s Article that lays down the right to freedom of expression) to quietly annotate the rapidly and rabidly decreasing space for dissent and yet observes a Christian procession, a Muslim nikaah, and all manners of delicious tiffins in everyday life. If violent forces propel the closure of the power of words, these festivities mark the thankful assimilation of unified, peaceful living.
The pace is unhurried, letting Nithya Menen play out her connectedness to Sethupathi’s character via a tremulous visit to his sister (Sarojini), treading the same places he does, finding that cause that she never had via Gauri’s manuscript. It’s been a purple patch for Malayalam movies and debutant makers, and 19 (1) (a) is a meaningful, welcome addition to the list. In supporting such a pensive beauty, Vijay Sethupathi lends weight to the story-telling cause, his act framing the borders of the movie with his casual yet profound charm. And Nithya Menen shines from within, her act bubbling up via her expressive eyes. When her character knows that coming closer to the truth and inner voice can be liberating and a burden simultaneously. And that even the roar of a revving bike can drown that voice out only for so long.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. 19 (1) (a) is streaming on Disney Hotstar and rated U/A ((Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) for ostensibly deep thoughts.
19 (1) (a)
Director Indhu V.S. Time 1h 48min
Writer Indhu V.S.
Stars Nithya Menen, Vijay Sethupathi, Indrajith Sukumaran, Athulya Ashadam