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The Mansore Interview | 'I Wanted 19.20.21 To Be An Uncomfortable Watch'

Fresh off an honour at the Bengaluru International Film Festival, 19.20.21 director Mansore talks to Subha J Rao about bringing the searing real-life story of Vittala Malekudiya to the screen.

The Mansore Interview | 'I Wanted 19.20.21 To Be An Uncomfortable Watch'

Mansore is among the few Kannada filmmakers who makes cinema with a social conscience. Source image via Facebook/

Last Updated: 02.06 PM, Apr 09, 2023


AT THE recently concluded Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFES 2023), the Special Jury Mention in Kannada Cinema Competition went to director Mansore’s 19.20.21. Based on the real-life case of journalist Vittala Malekudiya and his father Linganna’s arrest under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and their nine-year legal battle for justice, 19.20.21 narrates the searing tale of what happens when a member of a tribal community merely asks for their rights.

Mansore shot the film using a hand-held camera and in a docu drama style — you see the proceedings as they happened, and as they were written in the chargesheet. Is Manju (as Vittala’s character is named in the film) a Naxal sympathiser or just a college student who learns that all atrocities need not be silently suffered? Does infrastructure development come at a steep cost for tribal people? Mansore is among the few Kannada filmmakers who makes films with a social conscience — his Harivu was about a farmer trying to bring back his dead son home, Naathicharami was about a young widow coming to terms with her yearning for companionship, Act 1978 was about a pregnant widow fighting a corrupt bureaucracy, and now 19.20.21 that addresses freedom of speech and right to life.

In a conversation with this writer, Mansore speaks about the process he adopted to make the movie, finding the right cast, why he likes commercial success (no spoilers here: because it encourages producers to back small, beautiful films), what about Vittala’s case moved him, and why the greatest validation for the film was when Vittala and people of his community said they felt seen because of it.

Edited excerpts:

When did you decide to make a film on Vittala’s life?

After I read the verdict that was handed down on October 21, 2021. This was the time I was running around to make Abbakka. But the budget for it was very high, and the project got dropped. My producers — Devraj Sir and Satya Hegde — told me to make something else. I had been following Vittala’s case and knew that since the verdict was out, making a movie now would not prove an issue.

Poster for 19.20.21
Poster for 19.20.21

Did you always want to shoot it as a docu drama or was that something you decided on later?

I initially meant it to be a thriller. But, after I met the tribal people, I realised the atrocities against them and the suffering they go through, and decided I cannot fictionalise it. I did not want to take cinematic liberties. I wanted to make something that would be a tribute to their struggle, honour them and show the audience what they went through. I wanted people to feel that this is not cinema, but life.

The court scenes stand out for their absolute lack of drama. This is unlike what we’ve seen so far. There’s just a quiet statement of facts, no screaming.

[Laughs] That came from my life. When I was going to the court for the Nathicharami case (the film won five National Awards and a case was filed against the selection), I kept observing the goings-on. It was never as loud as people showed in the movies. This film was not in my mind then, but what I saw had registered somewhere, and I used it for this film. Also, I shot the movie in sync sound. If there had been verbal arguments like we show in films, the dialogues would have overlapped.

The film was shot in scenic terrain but made for a very difficult, uncomfortable watch.

I’m very glad you felt that way. Many people told me the camera felt like a disturbance, and I was happy with that response. That was our intention. We did not want any smooth shots, because what happened was nothing less than violent. We did not shoot using a tripod, and hoisted the camera over the shoulder… Usually we see instant judgements on screen. This one took nine long years. I wanted people to understand that journey.

You cast very well for the film, especially Shrunga and Balaji Manohar. There were some unusual choices too, like MD Pallavi. How did you go about it?

I never write with someone in mind. After the script was ready, I knew that the film would work only if I cast actors who understand and empathise with this story. I kept jogging my memory to see who would work. I’d worked with Balaji before and knew he would be perfect to play the advocate. I’d seen Shrunga before in theatre and short films and had always wanted to cast him in a suitable role. There’s a certain innocence in his face that I remembered. That was needed for people to understand Manju’s plight. I chose Pallavi because I wanted someone whose eyes shone with determination. In real life, Vittala’s mother stayed alone inside the forest for many days when her husband and son were arrested.

I went for actors who would gladly get out of their comfort zone, and actors who would trust me with the film.

Still from 19.20.21
Still from 19.20.21

How did you decide to handle the Naxal portion of the movie — as narrated by the police in the chargesheet?

I first looked at it as a well-written document and then the anger came in. It’s amazing what they get away with. This is a grey area. Police are convinced he’s a Naxal and they end up convincing others about it too. I wanted people to feel that strongly. Only then will it register when the advocate demolishes every cooked-up story in the second half.

You did not give forgiveness to the cops who erred…

I did not want to, even though we reimagined some portions. They grew old, retired and went back to their families, after depriving Vittala of everything. I left the character of Vivek vulnerable, because he realises he’s one among the masses after retirement. He can’t get anything done. Power made him behave thus, and the lack of it has rendered him powerless. Unbridled power is the problem.

How did you work on the nine-minute monologue about our rights as enshrined in the Constitution?

This was shot in sync sound and I knew Balaji would do justice to it. I did not want it to be overly emotional or flat, and I wanted it to have a tinge of personal pain. It should be effective but it should fall in line with court protocol. Avinash, my dialogue writer, did great justice to the scene, and it worked well.

You collaborate with Bindu again for the music, after Naathicharami.

Yes, I’d requested her for a song. She came up with something so lovely — a song sung by the forest. The background score is by Ronada Bakkesh. Many people asked me why I did not have a background score for the film. Can there be better validation of what Bakkesh managed?

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