Cast: Nithya Menen, Vijay Sethupathi, Indrajith Sukumaran
Director: Indhu VS
Streamin On: Disney+ Hotstar
The nameless protagonist (credited as ‘Penkutty) in Indhu VS’ 19 (1) (a) runs a small photocopy shop in small-town Anchelpatty. Her regulars include the local school peon in a hurry to get question papers printed right before the exams, the town library for their pamphlets, and lazy students who never take down notes. This shop is called National Printing and Publishing, but with a broken computer and regular power shortages, it is hardly the institution the name suggests it to be.
This Penkutty too is equally nondescript with a routine (and a tiffin box) that makes her just any other person living just any other life. Having had to quit her studies to take over the shop, her sentences appear to be in passive voice. When looked at from a distance (helped by Manesh Madhavan’s arresting wides) 19 (1) (a) is her journey from apolitical nonchalance to a political one. It is what brings her alive and gives life meaning, but this transformation isn’t being catalysed by what’s happening around her (the news on TV here talks about the misuse of The Official Secrets Act). It is most personal and internal like how falling in love can change a person.
But it’s not a regular customer that brings about this change in her. Vijay Sethupathi as Gauri Shankar (paying tribute to Gauri Lankesh) leaves a transcript of his work with her along with a promise to return soon. She’s entrusted to make a copy of this book that’s written in a mix of Tamil, Malayalam, and English, or the three continents as Gauri describes these languages. Their brief interaction lasts all of a minute but its impact is haunting.
Every spoken word from this meeting takes fresh meanings as we go along. Even his written word returns to set this woman on a path of self-discovery that forces her to look at life differently. When her best friend needs to get married, she’s not just worried about losing a friend but she makes it a point to give her assurances that can set her free (a mural on her bedroom wall is of a bird escaping a cage). This is true of her relationship with her father too. From a broken, distant relationship between the two islands, we see how the woman’s internal transformation impacts her father too.
But that’s just the kind of impact Gauri has had on everyone he meets. These interactions take place in various places but the film uses travels as a motif. Instead of regular conversations that happen across a table, we see both Gauri and his listener engage in dialogue as they move from one place to another. In these instances we see Gauri driving not just the conversation but also the vehicle they’re travelling in, even if it doesn’t belong to him. Gauri’s presence is such that he takes over the steering wheel to take you to a place you didn’t know you could reach.
The film too transforms along the way to become a silent conversation between a writer and his reader. In retrospect, certain developments give these moments a finality and a state of peace you see in someone who has said everything he needed to say. Gauri understands that the value of his words and ideas are bigger than he is so there’s never a semblance of fear or the desire to keep living.
The heft of his words is such that he doesn’t have to rely on wealthy publishers either to put the word across. All he needs is a nameless photocopy shop owner and her broken machine to make a “National” impact. With this delicate film, Indhu VS makes a strong and poignant first film that says so much without the need for words. Her writing too aids this layered journey as we see a woman change from making a joke about protests to becoming a symbol herself.
Indhu’s cinematic ideas are also strong like the political stand she takes. Apart from the image, she uses sounds too to create deeply disturbing reactions. But it’s also the performances of the two leads that make the film special. Nithya Menen doesn’t need words to take us deep into her character’s mind which is so full of conflicts that she can barely hear herself think. Vijay Sethupathi too gives us one of his finest performances in years. It’s not as much a performance as it is his presence but he so easily convinces us of Gauri, an unforgettable character who doesn’t even have to raise his voice to reach millions. A film about revolution can rarely feel as personal as this. Like Gauri, 19 (1) (a) too understands that whispers can be more impactful than loud speeches.