“Do you know what your problem is?” a veteran election instructor asks a newbie.
The youngster replies: “My honesty?”
“No,” says the older gentleman, “your problem is your pride in your honesty.”
His point is pretty straightforward, as he continues: Don’t get so hung up on how clean you are, just do your work one step at a time, one day at a time, and in time the country will take care of itself. Read: do not let your ego cause you to obsess to such an extent about your giant role in the big picture, that you forget the old dictum about little drops making the ocean.
The elderly character played by Sanjay Mishra does not appear in the film beyond this conversation he has with the protagonist, but his words put in a nutshell the premise of Newton. Writer-director Amit V. Masurkar’s sophomore venture is the story of a rookie sarkari afsar determined to conduct a free and fair election in a remote, forested Chattisgarh polling station to which he has been assigned as presiding officer. Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a portrait in youthful earnestness. He is inexperienced and innocent enough – some may say naïve – to be startled at the opposition to his efforts by those within the establishment.
His companions on that journey into a Naxalite-ridden conflict zone where everyone is too afraid or too skeptical to vote are senior policeman Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), a local booth level officer Malko Netam (Anjali Patil), an official of indifferent health called Loknath (Raghubir Yadav), and a bunch of cops who are on duty to guard them.
What you see in this mix are a conscientious soul, a corrupt cynic, a woman doing her job while being resigned to her people’s fate, an old man resigned to the harshness of a reality he does little to change and a satellite group flowing with the tide. It takes all kinds to make the world, it takes just one you, me or Newton to be the change we want to see in that world.
Hindi cinema has for long more or less ignored the existence of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in our society, with most films being centred around upper-caste, north Indian, Hindu men. Stories of Dalits and women have usually been told by art filmmakers, and that too in weepie form. When Dalits have appeared in mainstream ventures, they have usually been supporting players and victims with no agency, uplifted by kind Brahmin and Kshatriya men. In the matter of caste representation, southern Indian cinema – though far from perfect – is head and shoulders above the north, with Dr Biju’s thoughtful Malayalam film Kaadu Pookunna Neram just this year taking us deep into tribal territory. Marathi cinema too scores high on this front with recent years bringing us the offbeat genius of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court (2015) and Nagraj Manjule’s commercially conventional yet thematically groundbreaking Sairat (2016).
Masurkar razes multiple Hindi film clichés to the ground in Newton by resorting to low-key black comedy to tell a tale of Adivasis being pulled in different directions by the police and Naxalites on election day, by making an Adivasi – that too a woman – one of the agents of change in the film, and by conceiving Newton as a man of indeterminate caste, even if clearly not an Adivasi himself.
Newton’s story has been credited to Masurkar, the screenplay and dialogues to him and Mayank Tewari. Together, they have managed to keep their tone light throughout, while never once making light of the unnerving situations before us.
Crucial to their effort is the casting, and the fact that a large part of the film is shot on location in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. Casting directors Romil Modi and Tejas Thakkar found many of their artistes in the very region the story inhabits. This explains why, thankfully, nobody is self-consciously ‘playing poor’ or ‘playing tribal’. Of the leads, Rajkummar Rao, Anjali Patil and Raghubir Yadav live up to their track record by delivering immersive performances, with each one lending an endearing touch to the characters they play. (As an aside, it must be said that Patil’s deliberately deglamourised styling in each of the films I have seen her in so far has failed to camouflage her great beauty. She is a stunner.)
To be a scene-stealer in an assembly of such immense talent seems impossible, yet somehow Pankaj Tripathi achieves that. This is an artiste who values our time and makes every second, every flicker of an eyelash count. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the scene in which Atma Singh is first introduced to Newton Kumar. By then, the latter’s name has already been a butt of many jokes. Atma does not offer a wisecrack, but with an expression so fleeting that you might miss it if you blink an eye at that moment, he wordlessly lets us – and Newton – know that he has noticed, he is taken aback and amused, but he does not care enough to do anything more. Now that he has delivered back to back brilliance in Anaarkali of Aarah, Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Newton, it can be safely said that 2017 is turning out to be The Year of The Tripathi.
Good camerawork and editing are an inextricable part of every good performance – this fact is exemplified by a scene in which Atma sits primly, wearing a floppy hat, and across a large vacant plot of land, observes Newton who stands at the door of the polling station. Atma’s posture, evident even in an extreme long shot where his face is a blur, Atma’s tininess in Newton’s eyes from that distance, and the pace of the cuts going back and forth between them had the combined effect of causing me to giggle, despite the awareness that Newton is disheartened at that point. A salaam here and for the flow of the rest of the narrative to cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane and editor Shweta Venkat Mathew.
Masurkar made his directorial debut with the laugh-so-much-that-you-might-die Sulemani Keeda in 2014, which sadly did not get the public attention it deserved. With his second film, it is clear that intelligently used humour is his weapon of choice, irrespective of the battle at hand. It is not often that an Indian filmmaker takes to comedy in a setting this dismal – Masurkar and his co-writer do, without being condescending or trivialising the almost depressing circumstances it chronicles in lands far beyond the India most of us are exposed to.
There is so much that Newton alludes to – the exploitation of tribals by politicians, the ignorance of ‘mainstream’ society, the constraints faced by honest government servants, the apathy or corruption that these constraints trigger even in those not naturally inclined to evil, language politics (I challenge anyone who claims that Hindi is the language of north India as a whole, to decipher the smattering of Gondi dialogues in the film without the help of a translator), the dubious efficacy of all violence (including violence that claims to have noble goals). Yet the film is not a PhD thesis nor is it all bleak. With his emphasis on the almost Darwinian significance of the lone soldier in human civilisation, Masurkar snatches optimism from the jaws of pessimism.
This is a film designed to give us hope that might even be deemed ridiculously in the face of the challenges before India’s many Newtons. One theory is that hope is a compulsion, a choice some of us make to maintain our sanity; the other is that human history bears witness to the value of being that drop in the ocean. In the words of a song from this film (music: Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor, lyrics: Varun Grover): “Manzil door thhi / Dheemi chaal thhi / Udti dhool mein / Aankhen laal thhi / Chalte chalte khud rasta mudh gaya / Tujhko dekh ke panchhi udh gaya.” (The road was long, your pace slow, your eyes reddening with the flying dust. As you walked, the path turned, and at the sight of you, the bird took flight.)
Newton’s music wafts so gently in and out of the narrative, that you almost do not notice when it is not there. When it is though, it makes its presence felt without rubbing itself in our faces.
Newton was premiered early this year at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a top award. The cleverness of Masurkar’s film is that it is designed to appeal to audiences beyond the already converted and beyond the artistically inclined fest circuit.
It takes us to a region rarely explored by Bollywood, and to a scenario so bizarre that as viewers we are left with just three options: laugh, cry or be furious. Option 4: all the above combined.
If you do watch this film, I strongly suggest that you stay till the very last credit has rolled off the screen. You do not want to deprive yourself of the pleasure of listening to the closing song Kar, in which lyricist Irshad Kamil writes: “…Paas pados mein kya banta hai / Kya hai masala kya hai tel / Tune isse kya lena hai? / Raajneeti ki shop hai, mitron / Sabhi emotion hote sale / Border pe apni sena hai / Tu Twitter pe chhod missile / Subah baitth aur shaam kar / Dil bola / Dil bola / Dil bola apna kaam kar / Chal tu apna kaam kar.” (Roughly: Why bother with what’s cooking in the neighbour’s house? In the business of politics, my friend, every emotion is for sale. Our Army is on the border, but you launch missiles day and night on Twitter. Still, my heart says, focus on your job. Come, play your part.)