India’s charming Oscar pick
The film lays bare the inner workings of the largest democracy in the world and at the same time forces, us to reflect on our ideals
WHAT DO YOU do when you are saddled with a name like Nutan Kumar? You change it to Newton. That’s the charming reason for the unusual title of the Oscar pick from India this year. And if the name is enough to intrigue you, the film will reel you in, hook, line and sinker.
Newton (Rajkumar Rao), our protagonist, lives his uneventful life behind a government desk and with apathetic colleagues. He is a man in a state of inertia, and he will remain that way until compelled to change his state by the action of an external force. That external force comes in the form of Democracy. Fate and idealism conspire to fly him into a Maoist influenced jungle, to conduct free and fair elections.
If you think that sounded suspiciously like Newton’s first law of motion, that’s because that is how director Amit Masurkar has decided to craft his new movie.
Newton is a mix of politics and history, of idealism and cynicism, of social commentary and detachment, through drama that happens without fanfare in a silent, predatory jungle. Newton has ideology and idealism in generous dollops, but it’s the way the narrative has been structured, it keeps you at an impartial distance. Leaving the actors and events to let you judge and form your own opinion.
When Newton lands in Chhattisgarh, on the eve of election day, he has 76 voters to wait for, a broken-down school building to conduct the election in, with an armed to the teeth CRPF battalion who are just waiting for him to fail. But they have never grappled with an immoveable force like him. When Asst. Commandant Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) tells him that “main likh ke de sakta hoon ki koi voter nahin ayega” for the elections, Newton slides him a notepad and pen to make sure he does “put it in writing”.
Newton (Rajkumar Rao), our protagonist, lives his uneventful life behind a government desk and with apathetic colleagues. He is a man in a state of inertia, and he will remain that way until compelled to change his state by the action of an external force.
The interesting thing is that both Aatma Singh and Newton are true to their nature and authority. They both represent the two sides of our democracy - Newton the ideals that the founding fathers dreamt of, and Aatma Singh the harsh reality of a 21st century democracy. They know they are just cogs in the wheel of the official system but using whatever little authority they have, both will make sure that the wheels of the government turn in the right direction, even if it means watching the other fail. It is this interplay between them which forms the core of the film and which gives Newton’s actions Aatma’s equal and
There are other differing views of democracy in the film that clash and support these two protagonists. Even within Newton’s ragtag team of election officials, there’s Malko Netam’s (Anjali Patil) weary realist who knows that “the history of the jungle is older than democracy” or Loknath’s (Raghuvir Yadav) humorous take on the opiate of the masses, “give the revolutionaries a colour TV, that will calm them down” and then there are the voters themselves who ask the election officials, “How will this election change our lives?”
The script works from the macro -the machinery, the people, the gargantuan effort that goes into making the largest democracy in the world to the micro - does every vote really count? It is also a script that doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but gives you the leeway to think, to make your own choice as the ideals of democracy grapple with the reality through a single election day. The camera is quiet like the jungle, helping you navigate your way through a ballot box in the shadow of a burnt building, the defeated lines on an elderly voter’s face, the stillness of an empty polling booth. The movie feels both like a commentary on the country and a deeply personal note on what it means to be a voter in a country that holds free and fair elections.
Free and fair elections is also an issue that occupies most of the movie, but while the issue is serious and the sound design makes you feel the palpable threat of violence in every frame; the levity of the script and performance keeps you invested in every moment. The performances of a very talented ensemble cast makes even the most banal moment come alive. Whether it is Aatma Singh biting into a beetroot saying, “Lal salaam” or Loknath’s pearls of wisdom on zombie novels or Newton’s future, the cast dig into their role with gusto. The film is spare on the incessant chatter that occupies most other movies of this genre, but it also means every nod every blink, every line matters. It is good to see Raghuvir Yadav after a long hiatus, still hitting the right note perfectly balancing his Everyman role. Rajkumar Rao is indistinguishable from his character and Pankaj Tripathi plays the perfect foil to Rao’s naiveté, bringing in the sly and clever into his performance, effortlessly. And then there’s Anjali Patil staying true and real to her role as Malko, the local election official, who has seen such elections come and go, and even when Newton and his team leave, nothing will really change in her or her tribesmen’s life.
The movie does go a little slow in parts where the director’s noble intentions overtake the perfect pacing of the script, but for the most part, Newton’s world remains poignant and charming, obstacle-ridden yet hopeful, and eventually as different as the man himself- an outsider in his own system but who slowly and obstinately melds himself into your mind and heart.
Free and fair elections is also an issue that occupies most of the movie, but while the issue is serious and the sound design makes you feel the palpable threat of violence in every frame; the levity of the script and performance keeps you invested in every moment
Newton is a political movie that does not preach, that does not take sides, that has no heroes and no easy ending, yet it makes you reflect- about the state of the country, about its people, much more than your daily newspaper headline does. It is a movie that is well-intentioned, well- researched, well-made and it’s a movie that respects its audience and their views. And for that, it gets my vote as a movie that needs to go to the Oscars.