A young nameless woman goes about her ordinary life when a chance encounter disrupts it and makes her question the status quo. Director Indhu VS's 19(1)(a) is about freedom of expression not only in political spaces but also personal life, beginning with the family. Indhu has worked in the Malayalam film industry as an assistant director since 2010. Some of the well-known films in which she has worked are Adaminte Makan Abu (2011) and Pathemari (2015). 19(1)(a) marks her directorial debut.
In the film, Gauri Shankar meets the nameless woman at the shop that she runs and hands over his manuscript for photocopying. He is murdered the same day and they never meet, but the incident transforms the woman's life and she begins to find her voice. In an interview, Indhu explains the thought process behind the film and her writing choices.
When I watched your film, the slogan 'The personal is political' came to my mind immediately. Was that idea central to your writing process?
I conceived this as a coming-of-age drama, about a woman who's living within a shell and a larger issue comes into her life in the form of someone who visits her shop. So, politics comes into her personal life and changes it. That was the idea behind it. Generally, in coming-of-age dramas with a woman in the lead, she falls in love with a man and the love story changes him or her. The woman here has some depth, she is not vocal but she has seen enough in life and has settled into a daily routine. But when something happens around her, how does her life and her passiveness change into action – this is what I wished to explore.
You've said that when you wrote the script, you didn't think of naming the character and she remained like that in the film, credited only as 'penkutty' (woman). Jeo Baby's The Great Indian Kitchen also had a nameless woman in the lead. Perhaps this is because these stories may find resonance with women everywhere?
Yes, I think so. When I was writing 19(1)(a), I started from the penkutty's house. She's not speaking to her father, she's taking the bus to the shop, she doesn't talk to anyone. The customers in the shop don't call her by name. Nobody uses her name. She doesn't even make a phone call to refer to herself by name. Nothing happens in her life. The name was irrelevant when I was writing the film.
When a friend of mine read the script, she pointed out that there was no name for the character. It happened organically but we decided to keep it that way. After the film's rough edit, we discussed it and we thought yes, this woman could be any woman. So, keeping her nameless made sense.
Your film is clearly inspired by the Gauri Lankesh murder case, and also references Hindutva politics. Did you struggle with self censorship at any point?
The politics in the film is an undercurrent, it's not at the forefront. For me, the film is about a woman's journey and so I didn't focus too much on the political incidents. It was while I was working with the idea of this woman's journey, that the Gauri Lankesh case happened and I decided to blend it in. I wrote it the way it came to me.
You said earlier that coming-of-age dramas with women leads are often love stories. In your film, the man and woman have a very fleeting meeting. Still, why did you change the gender of the journalist from the real life case?
I wanted to show a man-woman relationship that isn't romantic because that's the expectation that we have from cinema. I wanted to show a different kind of connection between the two. Though they meet as strangers and never get to know each other better, they are connected by the incidents. The Gauri Lankesh incident inspired me but Gauri Shankar in the film is not based on the real life journalist and what sort of person she was.
Much of the film is focused on the penkutty's internal transformation and there's very little dialogue. A filmmaker has to really trust the audience for them to do that. Did you worry about whether the viewer would get the film?
Yes, while writing the film, I did feel anxious. Once I finished the first draft, I realised that there were very few dialogues. The screenplay was about 100 pages and only a few lines were spoken by the penkutty. The focus was on where she was looking, on her opening and closing the shutters of the shop, her eating and so on. When I read the first draft, I was worried, but I didn't rewrite it. The screenplay had elements of myself in it, and I loved it. I decided to go with it and on the first day of the shoot, when Nithya Menen was on the set, I felt it was going to work. The way Nithya carried the character made me trust the script.
Yes, Nithya is great at bringing the subtlest of expressions to her face…
Yes! I felt she knew the penkutty very well. I saw that she had understood the character beyond my expectations and what I had communicated to her. Even when the camera is just on her and she's walking around without speaking, there is something she makes the viewer feel. She communicates to the audience all the time.
Though the film begins with Gauri's murder, you chose not to depict violence on screen. Even towards the end, when there is a reference to multiple killings, we don't see the actual act. Why so?
That's me. I can't watch violence on screen. I feel suffocated when I see too much blood on screen. Even a gunshot shakes me. I didn't want that to happen in this film. Though it begins with a murder, I wanted it to be a lighthearted film. I wanted it to have a certain beautiful melancholy in it.
One of the criticisms against the film is Vijay Sethupathi's characterisation as a Tamil man who writes Malayalam fluently but doesn't speak it so well. What was your thought process behind the character?
I actually wanted Vijay Sethupathi to speak in a mix of Tamil and Malayalam in the film. His mother tongue is Tamil and he's a natural speaker of the language, but not Malayalam. I felt the way he spoke in the film was beautiful.
The penkutty's friend is a Muslim woman who is pushed into a marriage she isn't keen on. Did you wonder if this would be seen as stereotypical, considering Muslim women in most of our films have no agency?
I didn't think of it like that. The penkutty asks Fatima if she has ever tried questioning her family. The point is that it happens in all homes, irrespective of religion. If we don't make our choices, people will do it on our behalf. I was coming at it from a gender angle. As you said, the personal is political, and I was looking at it in a larger context.
You're a member of the Women in Cinema Collective. As a woman in this industry, do you feel your right to exercise 19(1)(a) has improved over the years?
(Laughs) I should say that I keep trying to improve it. Over the last few years, the WCC has played a prominent role in the industry and things are changing. I feel empowered to be part of the WCC. The organisation is trying to make the industry a better place and I'm hopeful that it will happen.
19(1)a is available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.