19.20.21 Review: The New Chapter in Mansore’s Ambitious Oeuvre Works Best As A Didactic History Lesson

Despite his best intentions, Mansore is unable to weave the dramatic real-life material into a wholesome impactful film
19.20.21 Review: The New Chapter in Mansore’s Ambitious Oeuvre Works Best As A Didactic History Lesson

Director: Mansore

Writers: Veerendra Mallanna, Mansore

Cast: Shrunga, Avinash, Balaji Manohar, Rajesh Nataranga

The genre of political cinema — the one which does not hesitate to take a strong political and ideological position and calls for action — has eluded Kannada cinema since Sati Sulochana (1934) released more than 88 years ago. There are many historical reasons for this. Primarily, in the pre-independence era, the freedom movement in the princely state of Mysore wasn’t as vibrant and vociferous as in other regions. And post independence, unlike Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka did not experience a transformational political movement. Moreover, there has always been a reluctance in mainstream cinema to seriously engage with the post-independence political conflicts — violent or not — in the country. 

As far as Kannada cinema goes, writer-director Mansore seems to be on a mission to change this status quo. After the successful 2020 political drama ACT 1978 (an inciting critique of bureaucracy and corruption), Mansore attempts to recreate the horrific experience of journalist Vittala Malekudiya and his father Lingappa Malekudiya — albeit with names changed —  with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in his new film 19.20.21. 

From the late 1980s onwards, the Naxalite movement slowly started spreading in a few districts of Karnataka and finally established a base in the Malnad belt affecting the districts of Chikamagaluru, Shimoga, Dakshin Kannada and Udupi. The movement reached its peak during the Kudremukh national park agitation against the eviction of forest dwellers in the early 2000s. It is in this  Naxalite-affected region that Vittala’s tryst with UAPA began. Vittala and his father Lingappa were arrested from their village deep inside the forests of western ghats in 2012 and charged with involvement with Naxalites under UAPA by the Anti-Naxal Forces (ANF) wing of the Karnataka state police. After a nine-year-long court battle, both were finally acquitted in October 2021.

19.20.21 opens with a shootout in the rainy western ghats between ANF and the Naxalites. The bloodbath sequence ends with a shot of a young girl’s body who is wounded brutally in the neck; an officer reveals that she is Rabiya, M.A. Gold Medalist and proudly declares that she got her in the “beauty bone”. This is happening in Kudumale Forest near Kudremukh in the year 2005, we are told. This opening sequence — a possible reference to the killing of the Naxalite leader Saket Rajan — sets the political tone of the film and unambiguously positions the state forces as the brutal suppressors. 

Manju (Shrunga) is a young impressionable boy from a remote village in the Kudumale forest. He is set to become the first college graduate from his village. While he lives in Mangalore city, his family comprising of father Ramappa, mother and siblings live in the village. College education has slowly begun to awaken Manju’s political consciousness. This process is further expedited with his meeting with a conscientious TV journalist Vijay (Venkatesh Prasad) and a left activist group leader Rafi (Rajesh Nataranga). Manju starts to speak up against the flawed forest eviction and rehabilitation plans of the government under the National park policy. This comes to a boiling point when an illegal arrest makes the headlines in the media thus creating a problem for ANF officer Amith Kumar. Not surprisingly, Amith Kumar in collaboration with the local cop Vivek hatches a plan to frame Manju under UAPA. How innocents like Manju and his father Ramappa are framed under UAPA, What it means to be arrested under this strict act and what it takes to fight such a case concerns the rest of the film. 

Mansore has a lot going for him in terms of story: the real-life case involved allegations of police torture, a court battle for permission for the accused to write University exams (a dramatic photograph of a handcuffed Vitthala writing exams was featured in media), amusing accusations by the prosecution around the objects found in his hostel room (amongst them a book on Bhagat Singh and some rudimentary kitchen items) and involvement of high profile politicians. But despite his best intentions, Mansore is unable to weave this dramatic real-life material into a wholesome impactful film. There are certain moments — like the sequence leading to Manju writing the exams and the powerful closing speech by the lawyer Suresh Hegde (Balaji Manohar) — which will provoke the audience to contemplate their political positions, but as a whole, the film comes across as a collage of events embellished with political rhetoric. 

19.20.21 Review: The New Chapter in Mansore’s Ambitious Oeuvre Works Best As A Didactic History Lesson
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The climactic courtroom drama, elevated by a terrific performance by Balaji Manohar and the realistic mise-en-scene, is the most convincing rhetoric in the film and works as an argument against the more recent arrest of activists and student leaders under UAPA. On the other hand, unfortunately, critically acclaimed actor Shrunga’s performance as Manju is marred by inadequate character development. In a quest for authenticity, the characters are assigned specific dialects such as the North Karnataka dialect for Inspector Vivek and Tulu dialect for Manju and Ramappa, but most of the time, the writing and the delivery does not succeed in creating effective dialogue.

While political cinema might necessitate a clear political position, it works best only if the characters are well developed and the narrative arc is engaging. 19.20.21 falls short here. The focus is so much on highlighting state violence and constructing a binary of perpetrator vs victim that the script does not succeed in humanising the main characters. The one-dimensional characterisation of the state representatives — the subtle but ambiguous treatment of inspector Vivek's possible transformation notwithstanding — does not help the believability factor of the film. Mansore’s approach seems to be preoccupied with creating an ode to the real life incident and the people involved in it and speaking out against violations of basic rights. 

One thing Mansore delivers very well is the political rhetoric. His unabashed use of Ambedkar's call to educate, organise and agitate, repeated invoking of the constitution - especially Article 19,20 and 21 from which the title is derived - and the imagery of Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Constitution are a welcome addition to the Kannada cinematic universe. With the true story of Vittala as its base, the film works best as a history lesson on the misuse of UAPA. But one wonders if the film would have been more impactful if real names of people and places were used. Was it the legal consequences that stopped the makers from doing so? 

Though didactic and underwhelming, 19.20.21 is a much needed film and one hopes that this will incite more Kannada filmmakers to cinematically narrate episodes from political history of Karnataka. This particular effort of Mansore might be lacking in filmcraft, but it does not miss a moment in following the good old adage: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. 

In a way, 19.20.21 comes at the right time when the conflict between the law of the land and life in the forest — especially in Karnataka — has been foregrounded by the unprecedented success of Kantara (2022). Mansore’s retelling of a real life ordeal is a timely reminder that state violence has played a crucial part in this conflict. 

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