A man walks through a colourful procession of churchgoers on the road and the background score turns sinister even though the surroundings seem ordinary. He waits outside a Xerox shop, looking around furtively, before finally entering. He hands the young woman working there, the film’s protagonist played by Nithya Menen, a handwritten manuscript and asks her to make copies. He then leaves as mysteriously as he arrived.
19(1)(a) is a meditative Malayalam film that revolves around this young woman who works at the Xerox shop. She’s resigned to a life of not having enough money to replace her faulty copier machines and a father who grows more and more distant as he grieves her mother’s death.
The film unravels slowly to reveal that the man who left his manuscript at the shop is Gauri Shankar (Vijay Senthupathi), an author famous for his social commentary and his criticism of the government. When the young woman absently turns on the news while eating lunch with a friend, she hears that Gauri was shot dead because of his political views, the very same day he visited her shop. 19(1)(a) draws us into the young woman’s psyche, as the camera follows her as she abruptly leaves the room, the background blurring and the voices of TV fading into dissonance.
No one else knows that Gauri left the manuscript for his latest novel, Karuppu (Black), at her shop and she feels a niggling responsibility to speak up about it. She goes to Gauri’s publisher’s office and his sister’s house with the manuscript, but loses her nerve before she can give it to them.
As time goes on, and the young woman cannot bring herself to part with the manuscript, she begins reading it. The scenes where sections of Karuppu are visualised are stunning. You feel as though you’re in the primeval forest as Gauri imagined it, with sunlight glinting through the vegetation. You watch in horror as nine corpses appear in the pond.
Listening to Gauri’s compelling prose and the few intriguing scenes he appeared in, I found myself wishing there were more scenes of Gauri speaking with the young woman. But refraining from this shows how words by themselves can have such a large influence on us. Juxtaposing scenes of Gauri walking through undergrowth or visiting his local haunts followed by the young woman doing the same gives us the sense that she’s trying to retrace his steps and understand the genesis of his ideas. She even sees Gauri walking towards her and sitting down next to her in a sort of magical realism.
By the end of the film, there’s a quiet confidence in the young woman. She anonymously couriers copies of Karuppu to people close to Gauri, peruses a website for a university course and encourages her friend to speak her mind to family members who are coercing her to get married.
The film is named for Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution which states that “all citizens should have the right to freedom of speech and expression”. Though the politics of the film is subtle, you can’t help but think of the 2017 assassination of activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh by Hindutva activists. The film feels relevant because of the political climate we’re in. Just this weekend, International Booker Prize winning author Geetanjali Shree’s event was cancelled in Uttar Pradesh over a complaint that her book had allegedly hurt Hindu sentiments.
We live in a world of ludicrous primetime news debates about the limits of self-expression where people file FIRs against authors without fully engaging with a book’s ideas. The complexity of the idea of freedom of speech is generally not reflected in films tackling the subject that generally take the hackneyed form of a political courtroom drama or a crime thriller. 19(1)(a) is impactful because it put the focus on how an ordinary person quietly taking agency over her own life is an extremely political act. It depicts the true power of free speech: that words are inherently agents for change, and they don’t need the sheen of social media or the urgency of sensationalism.
Angela Mathew is a 20-year-old student from Mumbai.
Featured image: Disney+Hotstar