MansoRe's effective docu-drama visual style and a vignette-like non-linear screenplay are the main highlights, but the oversentimentality pulls it down.
Trouble brews in young and virtuous college student Manju's life when he, along with his father, is falsely accused of being a Naxal and put behind bars on sedition charges. As a member of the cruelly marginalized Adivasi community of the Kudumale village (Dakshina Karnataka), Manju's prior dissent against the police force and local authorities, too, is taken into account as he is dragged across mercilessly by the judicial system. However, a ray of hope falls on him when a journalist, a lawyer and other samaritans fight his battle resolutely - will Manju be rightfully acquitted? And even if he is cleared of the charges, can the state restore his honour & dignity in society?
MansoRe has evidently built a penchant to tell large and poignant stories through a single individual. Each of his previous films, be it Harivu, Naticharami or Act-1978, reflect the filmmaker's angst and disquietness toward the society at large but the solution he offers is often channelled through a protagonist. Sometimes the protagonist retaliates, like Geetha in Act-1978, and on other occasions, they display a kind of muted doggedness, like Gowri in Naticharami.
His latest film, 19.20.21, is an intriguing combination of retaliation & true grit and there comes a time in the film when Manju, the protagonist, finds himself intimidated into choosing one of the two. Manju is young, impressionable and invigorated as the only educated member of his suppressed tribal community but he knows the cost of launching a miscalculated attack on those in power. He is also aware of the hierarchy that exists around him and the fact that he & his people are mere "invalids" that the state uses whenever convenient, in order to cover its tracks.
And Manju is that device that MansoRe uses to exclaim his opinions about the social garb we all live under. Through Manju and a large set of borrowed true incidents, the filmmaker navigates a sinister power-driven maze with a lot of ingenuity and has no qualms about pointing fingers either. His compassion lies with Manju and his impoverished tribal community and there's a clear demarcation between the good and the bad in the film, and this is one major example of MansoRe's intent. In a manner to speak, he isn't here to mince words but to passionately yell his heart out.
But that doesn't mean that he wants to get away by making a wishy-washy film. MansoRe, in order to justify his stance, employs an effective docu-drama technique that helps us, the viewers, to experience the misery first-hand. There's a vignette-like screenplay in place that simply presents each harrowing incident as a non-linear sequence of scenes and for the most part, this allows us to be in the thick of the drama. Scenes of police brutality and the absolute gross injustice handed to the Adivasis are hard to stomach but MansoRe and DoP Satya Hegde's camera do not flinch at any point. The scenes involving Manju's bail deferment, followed by the gut-wrenching brutality that the cops use to frame him, are particularly visceral and affecting. Shrunga B.V. as Manju is an exceptional blend of meek and determined in these sequences, and one is likely to walk out of the cinema halls with his distress ringing loud and clear in their mind.
The film also makes a valiant plea by saying that Manju is only a speck in the pool of social apathy that thousands, even lakhs, of people from the tribal community endure on a daily basis. We learn that it's a systemic flaw and that everyone's a part of it and the scapegoats, unsurprisingly, are people like Manju. In what could be termed the film's best sequence, we see the presiding local police officer file a chargesheet by completely fabricating Manju's involvement in the prevalent Naxal activity. MansoRe presents this fabrication almost like a flashback and even manages to trick us into believing that Manju actually joined the Naxals. At no point does the director make judgments about the Naxal cause either and instead, he maintains a keen eye only on the injustice served to his central character.
The truth must prevail, he says, and the narrative forges on in its search, although haphazardly, through a set of righteous individuals. MansoRe and his team of writers bring in lawyers, journalists, social crusaders and many others to highlight the various technicalities of the Constitution and how they are gravely misused for reasons such as greed. The title '19.20.21', turns out, is a reference to articles 19, 20 and 21 that offer Indian citizens the right to freedom, expression, and protection in light of being convicted for offences.
That said, I was hoping to see the gripping drama unfold more through the eyes of Manju and less in the form of political/social commentary. MansoRe's visual and narrative technique try their best to imbue objectivity among the audience but his compassionate gaze also ends up instilling a sense of melodrama in the film. Under the garb of presenting a true story, the film foregoes the opportunity to present Manju's inward journey as he tackles the mighty challenge. As much as he strives and perseveres the hardest, the people around him end up shining brighter and his character is not given the full opportunity to present his first-hand account. The background score, too, becomes a bit too sentimental in certain portions and this becomes the film's main shortcoming.
The film's concluding moments which include Manju's lawyer Suresh Hegde's (played by the very dependable Balaji Manohar) searing speech about the misuse of the constitution is good and quite apt, but only in isolation. In fact, it doesn't go well with the tone that MansoRe wants to and has used in the majority of the film. The relentlessness with which he tackles the complex subject is surrendered for a slightly drawled-out climax and although there is nothing wrong with it, the bold underlining of what he wants to say may not have been necessary.
19.20.21 is a compelling drama, no doubt, that stirs you up in more than just one way. MansoRe presents his case with a lot of conviction and remains solid in his path for the most part, until his gaze becomes a tad too sentimental. One is likely to feel that there are a few too many footnotes in the film and these also end up adding to the runtime of the film and stretching things unnecessarily. However, with a great central cast and a solid technical crew in place, 19.20.21 sheds light on a severely undermined social issue and bats for the oppressed in an emphatic manner. There's no dearth of heart or compassion in the film, and even though it may seem a little incessant at times, it certainly demands a visit to the theatres.