19(1)(a) Movie Review: Surprisingly contemplative and subdued political drama
Much of 19(1)(a) benefits from a strong sense of minimalism in visuals, sounds, or dialogues
For a film titled after an article in the Indian Constitution pertaining to freedom of expression, the expectation would've been something with loud political overtones. But Indhu VS' directorial debut is surprisingly a contemplative work that gravitates more towards character behaviour and mood. And what a relief it is to see a subdued Vijay Sethupathi (VJS) after a long time! What if the VJS from Aandavan Kattalai was a fearless, anti-right wing writer who didn't shove his ideology down others' throats? That's what Gauri Shankar from 19(1)(a) is. No points for guessing if a real-life journalist inspired this gender-switched version. What if, one day, he walked into a photostat shop and handed over the manuscript of his last work to the lady managing it (Nithya Menen's character is nameless)? They only meet once, but the registered impact has a far-reaching effect, as we see later in the film.
Director: Indhu VS
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Nithya Menen
Streaming: Disney+ Hotstar
Sometimes all it takes is a shocking piece of news about an individual you've only met once -- or known only for quite a while -- which kickstarts a process you didn't expect to change you for the better. And Indhu VS populates her film with a few characters that are all looking for some meaning and purpose. Some wish to be free of the shackles that society has bound them by but aren't courageous enough to do so because whoever they're trying to convince "won't get it". When Nithya's friend and constant lunch companion informs her that she is about to be married off soon, the former asks if she has at least tried to question them once. Perhaps the former would've thought differently had she not met Gauri Shankar that day. She might have behaved with the same lackadaisical attitude with which her friend responded when, for example, Nithya asked her what she felt about Gauri's assassination. Maybe Gauri's arrival ignited a spark that was already in her. Perhaps, it was all about the timing.
Nithya is a woman who has been following a set routine for a while, but she is not the same person after a point. We get the first sign of her metamorphosis when, one night, instead of locking up her shop and leaving early, she decides to stay back, dozes off and awakens sometime late in the night. She is soon visiting all the places Gauri had frequented, walking all the narrow and lonely paths. There is a brilliant moment where we see a past vision of a solitary VJS while Nithya is in the same place, in the present, and for a brief moment, we see VJS pausing to look back. Was he looking over his shoulder -- in the figurative sense? Or was he wondering whether he could pass on the baton to someone? Or was it to suggest that Nithya is finding inspiration from all the paths he had walked on and preparing herself to step out of her comfort zone and boldly take on every challenge that comes her way?
Much of 19(1)(a) benefits from a strong sense of minimalism in visuals, sounds, or dialogues. When Gauri first lands in Nithya's locality, his eyes fall on a crimson party flag. In a later scene, we see a black flag representing Gauri hoisted next to it. The most striking sound in the film belongs to an approaching motorcycle, used differently in the opening and closing shots. They can either mean the same thing or two different things. The first time we hear it, there is an undercurrent of menace. The second time, there is a sense of ambiguity and hope.
Despite VJS being a fairly dominant presence throughout the film, I wish the film had spent more time exploring more of his thought processes and ideology. There is a sense that the makers were trying to play it safe. But having said that, kudos to them for not adopting the loud and preachy approach that characterised some of the most recent political dramas in Malayalam cinema.
As for the music, Govind Vasantha's score, dominated by pianos, guitars and violins, carries a noticeable Latin flavour. This gentle musical approach might seem odd and sharply contrasting for a subject of this nature, but it makes perfect sense considering the meditative nature of the storytelling. I was reminded of films like Motorcycle Diaries, where the focus was more on capturing the feelings of characters undergoing a transition phase. 19(1)(a) gets that tone right.