19.20.21 Movie Cast & Crew
There's a terrific bit of irony in Mansore's 19-20-21. The story revolves around the tribal people in the forests of the Western Ghats. They have no electricity, no toilets – it's a long list of the essentials that they don't have. They don't have roads, either. A tribal man says that if they had roads, it would be easier for their children to visit them. But then, someone else says, it would be equally easy for the forest police to visit them. Perhaps they are better off as they are. The film opens in 1998, at a point when the police begin to beat up a group of tribals for collecting forest produce like honey. And we get to Irony No. 2. Imagine being punished for plucking fruits from the very trees that you have planted. That's not all. Irony No. 3 is just around the corner.
At the point the tribals are beaten up, they exclaim that they want their children to be educated, so that at least the next generation does not have to suffer this fate. And so we get to Manju, played by a wonderfully controlled Shrunga BV. He becomes the first person from his community to get a college degree, but it's not easy. In one scene, he runs into a couple of forest police, and they examine his bag thoroughly. It's almost as though they are disappointed that the bag contains nothing but books. So what did they expect? They want evidence that Manju is a Naxal. This line explains it all: "We are children of the forest, but in the eyes of the government we are deshdrohi-s." Every tribal is under suspicion, either of being a Naxal or helping out Naxals.
The crux of 19-20-21 is the arrest of Manju and his father (Mahadev Hadapad). Are they Naxals (or Naxal helpers), or are they innocent? Mansore takes us through this investigative journey in a docudrama style, with a mostly handheld camera. Only a few scenes feel off – like an echo of Manju not being allowed to sleep in jail and a man in a bus not being able to sleep because of someone narrating Manju's story. This is a little too pointed. Otherwise, there's just enough drama – say, in the scenes of torture, or in the scene where Manju meets his sister. And there's just enough fact – say, in the elaboration of the title, or in the attempt to move Adivasi-s to the city. The apparent intent for this move is to improve their way of life, but we also see a powerful man who has his eyes on the rosewood trees in the forest. He thinks he can import labour from Jharkhand to get the job done.
The narrative unfolds in an unexpected way, where we see what we are told to see versus what really happened. And throughout, this "mystery" is flavoured by the entire ecosystem around the issue. Apart from corrupt ministers and cruel cops, we see activists protesting against police brutality, ruling party and opposition party leaders, the oppression of Tulu-speaking tribals by Kannada-speaking cops, Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) court proceedings, and some of the most honest and idealistic journalists. I usually prefer touches of grey in every character, but given this issue, the fact that there is a press fraternity that cares more about inequality than headlines is very touching. This is not a subtle movie, but when lawyers or teachers are on screen, the preaching and the messaging automatically assume context within the frame of the story. It does not feel like the usual random advice from a random do-gooder hero.
I wished Mansore had kept the commentary more focused. For instance, we hear from a politician that the tribals are more politically aware now and it was better when they were frogs in a well. True. But it sounds more like lines from an editorial than lines of dialogue. And the touch of giving a copy of our Constitution to a young girl belongs in a more melodramatic movie. But, to a large extent, the tone of 19-20-21 is perfect: the story travels all the way to the present day, and we feel every bit of Manju's plight. But without the hysteria that we sometimes find in these films. Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar are invoked both as posters on a wall and in spirit. My favourite line is when someone says: "He is a young boy. Even if he has done something wrong, he should be given the chance to correct himself." This is a gentle sentiment that belongs in a far less cynical world than the one around us today, and that's the spirit Mansore imbues his film with. If we don't hope for the best, then all is lost.