19 (1) (a) addresses itself to the thorny issue of political absolutism where the voice of dissent is not permissible. It is also a film that demands justice for the wronged. The plot is a masterstroke of emotive expression.
19(1) (a) is not an easy title for a film in any language. The Malayalam film of that name has a certain tangy political tinge to it. 19 (1) (a) addresses itself to the thorny issue of political absolutism where the voice of dissent is not permissible. It is also a film that demands justice for the wronged. The plot is a masterstroke of emotive expression.
An activist-whistleblower and a photocopy shopowner are the main characters. Vijay Sethupathi who loves being in films with a strong message is here cast as a political environmental activist Gauri Shankar who is murdered because some powerful people are not too fond of the truth. Gauri Shankar is evidently a hark back to Gouri Lankesh and her mysterious assassination.
But this is not Gauri’s story. It is the nameless girl,played by Nithya Menen who leads the plot into a struggling light . The quivering conscience of the ordinary citizen forms the crux of this gripping humane drama. The atmosphere created by debutant director Indhu V S is is tense but never oppressive.
What the film lacks completely is a sense of humour. The ideals that the director strives for are too grim to be lightened by laughter. Some of the plot points are designed for a particular effect. Why is the nameless girl’s best friend (played Atulya Ashadam) a Muslim, if not to darkening highlight the liberal vein in the characterizations?
And why is Nithya nameless? Is it to make her a symbol of the entire Indian middle-class caught between what is and what should be? Or is it something much simpler, like no one getting a chance to call out her name.
Nithya Menen as the nameless faceless girl gives an extraordinary pitch to her ordinary character. She is Everywoman and yet very special. On her decision to publicize or not publicize the words of the activist hinges a host of questions: how far must a common man go in upholding the truth before putting his or her life in danger?
There is a saddening silence separating the protagonist from her father (Srikant Murali) , and the father and daughter make no effort the breach the rift, as if to say no relationship can survive in a world which worships corruption.
I am glad they got Nithya Menen and not Parvathy Thiruvothu Kottuvattaa for the role of the workingclass girl facing a epic do-or-die dilemma. Parvathy would have been too obvious a choice. Menen makes her faceless girl determined not be frightened. She is strong yet vulnerable. Shaken yet determined. Her decision as to what to do with Gauri Shankar’s unpublished highly reveals echoes the heartbeat of every Indian’s conscience.
Should we sit at home watching the annihilation those who fight for the truth? You decide.
There are some strong moments in the film that stay with you. But they are not as frequent as we would want them to be.
Unni Govindraj’s Heaven is the second Malayalam film in a row after Pathaam Valavu where that brilliant actor Suraj Venjaramoodu is a bereaved father. In Pathaam Valavu his daughter was murdered . Here it’s his son. In the earlier film Suraj had more scope, a larger emotional bandwidth written into the dark plot, to express his grief. Here he is on his own.
In Heaven the bereaved father Peter is a policeman which complicates the moral issue. There is a powerfully played sequence in which the silently grieving Peter asks his boss, a woman (Abhija Sivakala) to be put him on the case to find his son’s killer. She of course refuses, and Sudev Nair(excellent in My Life Partner) does a neat tightrope walk as the cop in charge of a heinous crime that involves his colleague.
So far the film is eminently commendable with just the right tone and flavor of dormant grief. As the policeman father of the dead child, Suraj Venjaramoodu projects a tense and bottled-up grief of a man who knows there is no room or time for tears. Suraj’s bereavement is so palpable it feels like a ticking bomb.
I waited for the screen to explode with Peter’s grief and anger. But the resolution when it comes is so farfetched and inorganic , almost ridiculously so, that I was left wondering if Peter’s grief was not better off unresolved. The problem here is of concentration. Debutant director Unni Govindraj wants all our attention. But his own concentration is all over the film. The film is that child showing off to his parents’ guests with a somersault, a poem, and a song, and riding his bicycle across the room and…..
You get the picture?
There are way too many diversions in the quest for justice.And what justice can a man whose son has been strangled to death, hope to get even if he is a police officer? Some of the most rewarding moments in the police procedural feature Peter with an aging junior cop Pillai (Alencier Ley Lopez) who shares Peter’s grief without saying anything.
Heaven has a solid powerful story to tell.But some poor writing brings the storytelling down a peg or two (for example, why would the killer slay Peter’s child when the boy was not even a witness at the crime scene where the killer struck before killing Peter’s son?) but not enough to blunt the storytelling’s laudable momentum and impact.
The end-game is tragically gimmicky. Nimisha Sajayan, Suraj Venjaramoodu’s co-star in the great The Great Indian Kitchen shows up as Peter’s defence lawyer with a (fake) watertight alibi. This, I am afraid, is too Drishyam for me. What remains is Suraj’s unexpressed grief. The tears don’t flow freely until the end. They never will.
One of the best Indian films on social inequality is Mari Selvraj’s Tamil film Karnan. It is not just a film. It is a movement. A wakeup call for all Indians who think all men are born equal(what about the women? That, some other time). Get real.The caste system still exists in various forms . Inequality is in our DNA. Anubhav Sinha tore through the caste system in his masterpiece Article 15 …or perhaps “tore” is not exactly what he did. The tone was far more gentle, the approach sweetly savage.
In Karnan the director Mari Selvaraj’s anger is stamped (like a heavy boot on a cowering face) on every frame. It is safe to assume that Dhanush plays the director’s alter ego. A seething living exploding fireball of indignation. Dhanush, in one of his best performances, plays Karnan the only loud unstoppable voice of protest in a tiny village in Tamil Nadu which probably doesn’t exist on the map.
It’s a village of lower-caste people forever oppressed humiliated and ostracized from the mainstream. One of the villagers’ primary anguish has to do with no bus stopping at their village. The authorities just don’t think they are of any consequence. While the other villagers accept their fate as nobodies why does one young man feel so strongly about it? Why does Karnan seethe with anger every time a bus refuses to stop in his village? Or a child dies on the road for the lack of medical attention(this is before the Covid when every human life evidently had the right to healthcare)? Or when, in that moment of supreme eruption, elders of the godforsaken village are bundled and taken to the thana and thrashed all night? Is this socially acceptable behaviour? Shockingly it is. For the downtrodden underdogs, living at ground level, humiliation subjugation and manipulation are everyday occurrences. All men are born unequal, some like the villagers in Kodiyankulam are more unequal. This jolting brutally violent film serves as a timely warning to all of us locked away in our individual citadels. India is simmering with discontent. We are sitting on a hotbed of exploitation which can erupt anytime. That small nondescript village in Karnan becomes a microcosm of the Great Indian Reality.
I have seen innumerable seething-simmering films about social injustice. None so tense and implosive. I’ve seen any number of angry heroes. None as angry as Karnan. As played by Dhanush he is the voice of a voiceless village. The hand that won’t hold itself back. The face of the social protester who is no poster boy. He will act. He will kill. He won’t be stopped. Dhanush is so volatile I have never felt more compromised, more a part of a socio-economical system that allows a handful to have all the wealth and power.
To be honest I have never seen a film like Karnan. It rambles and roars, dances and writhes as it explores the dynamics of exploitation with a straightforwardness that eschews any kind of cinematic deceit. And yet strangely enough it is filled with allegorical allusions and metaphors including a masked girl child indicative of the faceless victim, and a donkey with its two front legs tied which Karnan frees before the climactic violence (get it?)
At its heart, Karnan is a distinctly violent film. The carnage at the climax will make your stomach churn, as it is meant to. You cannot turn away from the savagery. Avoidance is not an option. Karnan puts you right in the vortex of the violent underbelly that the higher classes have willy-nilly nurtured. It will make your blood boil. This is a no-frills drama authentic almost-documentary-like drama filmed on an epic canvas with mobs running towards us with sticks rods boulders and their wrath. It scoffs at melodrama and music(the songs are sharply critical folk tunes, or shall we call them fork tunes?). It is a drama of heightened realism where the hero rides into the carnage of his village on a horse. It is a frightening fascinating unforgettable film that you would give anything to forget. But it won’t go away. It tells us that the underprivileged won’t be ignored anymore. And why.
The performances are beyond brilliant, as is the camerawork (Theni Eswar), music (Santhosh Narayanan) ….and razor-sharp editing (Selva RK) which creates an illusion of a lazy narrative only to bludgeon us with a scathing eruption of violence which we may or may not see coming. How does it matter?
Writer-director Mahivarman C. S’s Tamil film Vaaitha feels like a three-hour excuse for screechy sloganeering against the caste system. This is Article 15 without poise or sensitivity. Good intentions when expressed at an ear-shattering decibel tend to lose their cogency and even relevance. Vaaitha is so loud in its message-mongering it feels like cheap pamphleteering specially when compared with such anti-casteist masterpieces as Vetrimaran’s Visaranai and Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan.
It all begins when an old clothes-iron man Appusamy(Mu Ramaswamy) is knocked down by a man on a speeding mobike. A large part of the narrative, if not all, is devoted to Appusamy and his young hotblooded son Vignesh (Pugazh Mahendran)’s fight for justice as they battle high-caste arrogance and judicial corruption. We battle ennui and disinterest.
All this is very familiar Jai Bhim territory. The writing and direction do nothing to dispel our unease at being subjected to a clumsy rehash of caste-bias masterpieces. Good intentions, if any to begin with, do not in this case translate into good cinema. On the contrary, the film is loud crude repetitive and stretched out like a rubber band around a bunch of old dog-eared papers .
The father and son’s fight for justice is bolstered by a series of clumsily written dialogues between the powerless and the powerful. The two sides exchange insults. But do little to make us care for the fight between the haves and the have-nots.
When the voices grow so clamorous that you can’t hear what they are saying, then it is time to re-examine the tricky relationship between social realism and popular art. Why was this film made in the first place? What purpose does it serve? The structuring is wobbly, the performances are crude, the songs and music are hysterical in tone. While the old man’s struggle for justice is stymied by societal stoicism the film refuses to budge from its perch of righteous indignation. It sits there in one place beating its breasts and bawling in protest like those persistent beggars at the traffic signal.
To add insult to perjury the courtroom drama takes breaks for romance. Yes, you heard that right. While the old injured caste-vulnerable man suffers in silence, his son romances a high-caste girl in the loom factory where he works weaving clothes while the director weaves a yarn so threadbare it feels like a fabricated fraud. The film ends with a little boy shrieking against the law and throwing dirt towards the courthouse. I don’t know whether we’ve ever seen a more naked display of contempt of court.
In order to make the voice of dissent heard, the protester needs to avoid hysteria.Btw how do you remain calm when the very ground beneath your feet is being snatched from under you?
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.