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Indhu VS: I see 19(1)(a) as a coming-of-age story- Cinema express

Indhu VS: I see 19(1)(a) as a coming-of-age story

In this in-depth discussion about her maiden feature, 19(1)(a), writer-director Indhu VS talks about adopting a meditative approach in the screenplay and how the film reflects her sensibilities

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Published: 02nd August 2022

In an age where some 'progressive' Malayalam filmmakers don't stand by the politics their films espouse, it's a relief to see a writer-director saying her film represents not just her politics but also her general approach to life. And it's evident from an enriching conversation with Indhu VS, a self-described introvert, that she is not one to toot her own horn.

Excerpts:

What I loved most about your film is that it's a clarion call for independent thought and critical thinking. One senses a very personal touch in it. So, let me ask: When did the unlearning process begin for you?

I guess it started in high school, after being introduced to fiction and the different worlds, individuals and thought processes in a particular piece of work. One tends to identify more with, and deeply understand, the characters' emotions than those around you. Now, I'm not claiming to have read a lot. I would say whatever I have read has strongly impacted me. And, of course, cinema too. However, I would say it's an ongoing, day-to-day process. It is never complete. Every day, in our encounters with various people and circumstances, we learn something new, don't we? 

I liked the generally contemplative approach you took with the film.

I'm generally a quiet person. I feel that even if I have to contribute to any discussion, I prefer to do it minimally and with a lot of subtlety because I have a minimal approach to life and those around me. So, naturally, that is also reflected in how I wrote the screenplay. Of course, we can't write every movie like that, but when it came to my debut work, I guess it was simply a case of nature taking its course. A lot of things I do in real life have crept into it. 

Some say that filmmaking isn't an easy profession for introverts. Do you believe that?

No, I wouldn't say that cinema is a scary place for introverts. It goes without saying that when you want to pitch a subject, one has to deal with a lot of people. And when you want to convey the emotions in your creation, you have to express them vocally, irrespective of whether you're an introvert or not. There's no other way. But at the same time, I feel that your quiet nature can also be your distinctive, noticeable trait. I've been in this industry for over a decade, and as someone who has spent a lot of time on this process, I would say that some things might seem difficult initially, but one learns many things from the ongoing journey. My journey has moulded me for sure. But when it comes to my comfort zone and friends, I'm still the same person. I'm not implying that I assume a louder persona when on set, but I've felt that I know how to convey what I want to my team without being loud.

You are right. One doesn't necessarily have to be loud to put across thoughts.

Indeed. It's enough to do it in a toned-down manner. Even though filmmaking is partly a materialistic endeavour, it is, after all, an art form where a group of people come together to create a moment. I believe that it needs a sensible approach. I've seen Nithya say in some places that ours was the best team with she had worked. I think it was because I managed to handpick people whose vibe matched ours. In fact, my director of photography (Manesh Madhavan) is quieter than me. (Laughs) He gets what I'm trying to communicate and acknowledges my directions with succinct replies. Most of our team members are like that. 

Was Nithya's character deliberately kept nameless? 

Not at all. It happened organically while writing the screenplay, which predominantly tracks that character's emotional journey. There was no place in the script where the character's name is brought up. After a point, I concluded that her name was irrelevant. 

Would you have taken a different storytelling approach had the focus been Vijay Sethupathi's character Gauri instead? A relatively louder one, perhaps?

Firstly, I would never imagine a movie with Gauri as the central character. It was not and never will be my intention. It's not my kind of storytelling. I'm more inclined to personally relatable stories. For me, the main characters of 19(1)(a) were this woman and a writer who visited her shop. And they remain strangers throughout the film -- that was the only focus. When seeing the film in its totality, the political aspect for me was just an undercurrent. The emotional and subtle storytelling aspects mattered more. It was a solid decision not to focus on Gauri's side more. In most of the discussions about the film I have now, the political emphasis is relatively less. The film's politics are, of course, mine, but I see it more as a coming-of-age drama than anything else.   

How challenging was it to pitch a subject of this nature? 

Very. While narrating the whole thing from beginning to end, I used to include even the sounds, mood, music... everything. We had no idea how many people perceive that kind of storytelling. After I started writing it in 2018, it took a long time for everything to fall into place. Of course, having Nithya and Vijay Sethupathi on board helped; they were strong factors. The latter committed to the project first; Nithya later. 

Any reason why you made Gauri a Tamilian writer

It was simply to give the story a sense of universality -- and what we are discussing is a universal topic. I didn't want it to have a confined quality. It should be accessible for people outside Kerala too.

One of the most notable aspects of Gauri's personality is that he respects others' space regardless of his ideology; he doesn't impose his thoughts on those around him. 

Absolutely! When a big subject like freedom of thought is the topic, I was primarily interested in -- and always drawn to -- its importance when it comes to the personal space of two individuals in conversation. When we are addressing all the problems ailing the world but don't understand the importance of respecting the boundaries of people we know, then what's the point? It should start first with the smallest, simplest things. That's why it was a conscious decision to invest more in detailing Nithya's character than Gauri's. The onus was more on exploring an individual's politics than the other. That's the most immediately affecting one. 

For a film with a tragic opening, its overall score sharply contrasts the undercurrent of darkness. What was the thought process behind that approach?

Since the film predominantly features many quiet moments of Nithya's character, I wanted the music to reflect the rhythm of her thoughts and routines. And I'm someone with a strong affinity for music, and the film's score reflects my taste. The music was in my head while writing the screenplay. With 19(1)(a), the mood of each moment was paramount. I felt the music and silences in the film complement each other perfectly. I felt the latter was more effective because of the music used here. So, when I approached Govind Vasantha to write the music, I told him the rendering should be careful. The same goes for Rajakrishnan sir's sound design -- it needed time and patience. Everyone on the team worked so hard.

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