“Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” This quote from the iconic speech by V, the mysterious masked protagonist of Alan Moore’s anarchist classic V for Vendetta, captures the gist of what the freedom of speech and expression means for people living under authoritarian regimes around the world.
Director Indhu V.S. aims to deliver this message, albeit in a quiet manner, in her debut film 19(1)(a), appropriately titled after Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India that gives the freedom of speech and expression to all citizens. Nithya Menen plays an unnamed ‘common’ person leading a mundane life, tightly looped between her photostat shop and a home she shares with her father (Srikanth Murali) who hardly does anything all day. Not much is said between them, suggesting some unresolved trauma. The only external influences she has are her best friend Fathima (Athulya Ashadam) and a local political activist (Bagath Manuel) only referred to as ‘Sakhavu’ (comrade). Alas, they too have their lives and choices to deal with. However, this nested life gets rattled one day by a chance encounter with the rebellious writer Gauri Sankar (Vijay Sethupathi).
19(1)(a) is slice-of-life tale of people who choose to, or are forced to, be quiet and obedient about what is happening around them or in their own lives. It is about a person who has a lot to express, yet time and again chose to suppress her feelings, fearing the consequences of stepping out of her daily routine. It is also about those who cannot help but speak out against oppression, at a time when the same can have grave consequences. This tension is very effectively used to create an atmosphere of uneasy calm throughout the movie.
Although touted as a project bringing Vijay Sethupathi back to Malayalam (and he is charming as usual), this is Nithya’s movie all the way and she holds it all together, even at its weakest points, with a brilliantly understated and internalised performance as a ‘quiet’ person learning how to speak out in her own quiet manner. In that sense, 19(1)(a) is a coming-of-age story with an important political subtext.
Yet, the narrative is not without issues. The trouble with making a ‘quiet’ movie is that when things eventually happen, you need to be careful not to over-dramatise it, both technically and narratively. Govind Vasantha’s background score, although engaging and mostly apt, is overwhelming at times, unlike Vidyasagar’s beautifully subtle soundtrack in Ranjith’s Kaiyoppu that is tonally close to 19(1)(a). There is also an occasional over-usage of slow-mo to jack up scenes that are inherently dramatic. In a more pacy and less subtle movie, these flaws would not have stood out. However, that’s not the case here.
Indhu, who also wrote the script, keeps it simple for the most part, only faltering occasionally, and towards the end with a slightly-underwhelming reveal. Ironically, 19(1)(a) works best when it chooses to be quiet and leave things unsaid. What’s more important is the willingness to be brave with the stories you choose to tell and the politics you put forward. In that regard, Indhu has certainly arrived.
19(1)(a) is currently streaming on Disney+Hotstar