“I have only done what people expect from me so far,” Nithya Menen’s unnamed character tells a journalist halfway through the film 19(1)(a), amid what seems like Nithya’s first slightly rebellious act. She is a woman stuck in routine, struggling to keep her widowed and depressed father’s photocopy shop afloat in a village in Kerala, more resigned than happy in her small world. The film’s initial sequences are an apt reflection of her life, ebbing and flowing calmly, with no loud overtures or theatrics.
Things begin to change with the entry of Vijay Sethupathy’s Gauri Shankar, a writer and activist named with purpose — no doubt, a reference to slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. It is through him that the reason behind the film’s name, 19(1)(a), referring to Article 19 of the Indian Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression, is made clear. Gauri Shankar is an activist who has been victim to threats and assaults from extremists for the kind of politics that he represents. Yet Gauri, an Ambedkarite, refuses to back down, determined to put his revolutionary words out into the world, despite being aware of the likely grave consequences. Clearly, the two protagonists of the film are as different as night and day. But eventually, it is a set of pages that Gauri leaves behind for photocopying in her shop that shakes Nithya’s character out of her torpor.
In her debut film, Indhu VS doesn’t pull her punches. Her politics is clear cut, and she has no qualms communicating it. The film’s protagonist is safe in the hands of Nithya, who pulls off the character of a naive woman who suddenly finds herself in a position of having to make an important, dangerous choice — one that could leave a significant impact on the region’s ongoing political scenario — with impressive subtlety and commitment. Where she falters, however, is in her dialogue delivery, with her urban Malayalam at times coming across as unsuitable for a young woman born and brought up in a village in Kerala.
Vijay too, on his part, is convincing as the enigmatic writer-activist, and his presence alone is undoubtedly a factor that would draw many audiences to the film. It makes sense for Gauri to remain a mysterious character as the film is following the journey of the woman played by Nithya, for whom the activist is the embodiment of an enigma. But the downside to this is that any nuance in Gauri is left unexplored, which unfortunately means the actor in Vijay has been acutely underutilised. Besides, it is surprising that as a writer who seems to be well-versed and has authored several books in Malayalam, the intelligentsia version at that, he seems to be struggling to speak the language. His spoken Malayalam continues to carry a heavy tinge of Tamil, unlike his sister in the film, who is no writer but speaks the language fluently.
Athulya Ashadam is charming as the protagonist’s friend Fathima, a seemingly mature young woman who doesn’t want to get married, but would rather succumb to the pressure placed on her by her family than put up a fight. Her relationship with Nithya’s character seems to be the most fleshed out in the film. She is that friend, a dependable confidante, who saves food for you, gives you her honest opinions and a scolding or two when required, can be assured to take you to the hospital when your parent suddenly falls ill, and constantly stands by you and gives you the support you so desperately seek at the time of need. Srikant Murali plays the role of Gangettan, the father of the protagonist. This father-daughter relationship had enough potential to be explored more, but that is not done, disappointingly. Indrajith Sukumaran (publisher Anand), Indrans (police constable Mohanan), Bhagath Manuel (the village ‘comrade’), and Deepak Parambol (investigating officer Ismail Ibrahim) appear in smaller, almost inconsequential roles, but still do their job effectively.
Manesh Madhavan’s camera work is impeccable. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the gorgeous visuals that captures the picturesque essence of rural Kerala. Govind Vasantha’s music beautifully complements the visuals, but goes overboard at times, sticking out in an otherwise grounded film.
Despite its flaws, Indhu, who has also written the script of 19(1)(a), has made a daring, promising debut with her unambiguous politics, which is undoubtedly the biggest plus of the film. For mainstream Malayalam cinema, which often shies away from hard-hitting political statements, here is a filmmaker to look out for.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.