Newton: What Matters Is A Movie That Unmasks Democracy So Boldly Has Made It To The Oscars
Most Cinebuffs of the time may have forgotten Prakash Jha’s Damul (1985). But it remains one of the most scathing celluloid critiques that explored the casteist and capitalist politics that dominated select pockets of Bihar.
It was based on Kaalsootra, a story by Shaiwal, a native of Gaya district of Bihar. The film won the Best Feature Film Award at the National Awards and the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Film. The film depicted the holding of an entire Harijan basti to ransom, by gheraoing the basti and stopping the residents from casting their votes. The basti is finally razed to the ground by a deliberate and fiery fire “Damul” means hanging.
Does the title refer to Samjeevana’s death sentence brought about by the political manipulation of the powerful zamindar and his men? Or is Sanjeevana’s death a metaphor for the death of honesty, innocence, conscience and justice?
Newton, directed by Amit V. Masurkar 22 years after Damul shows that the Sanjeevanas of the world are not dead yet. They sometimes reappear in a ‘second coming’ in the name and style of Newton, a la Nutan Kumar (Rajkumar Rao), a young government clerk who changed his name in the entrance form of his School Board examination because Nutan Kumar made him the butt of jokes he did not like.
He is appointed as ‘reserve’ to stand in if needed, as the Presiding Officer on election duty at a polling booth within the forests of Dandakaranya that has 76 eligible voters who, it is unlikely, will come to vote because the Maoists/Naxalites have announced their boycott of the elections.
Newton, the character and the film, reflect ugly and unknown truths that do not raise questions, but point out to some answers that are more shocking than surprising. The film offers the audience a glimpse into the truths of the general “elections” in the world’s largest “democracy.”
The film has been almost entirely shot in the Dandakaranya forests in Chhatisgarh, notorious for the dreaded Maoists / Naxalites of the region also known as part of India’s “Red Corridor.” These are areas populated mainly by adivasis who are victims of the greatest poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation in modern India. They span parts of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telengana and West Bengal.
The Adivasis are at the bottom of India's economic and social ladder. More than 200 of India's 640 districts are under Maoist control. Underlying the Maoist philosophy is its opposition to the very concept of the democratic state. The Maoist view is that it is a people’s war against an unjust government. Hence, conducting elections is to be opposed by all means available, and, according to most of the writing in the media, justifies the use of extreme violence. Media research reveals most articles and op-eds are biased against them. The film however, speaks in a different ‘voice.’
Newton, however, when called from the “reserve” to stand in for the young Presiding Officer who said that he had a heart problem and would get a “medical certificate within ten minutes” does not find any signs of violence in the deep forests where the “notorious” Naxals have threatened the local adivasis to boycott the elections.
The head of the security force Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) tries to discourage Newton from going into the jungles because, he says, “I will write it on a blank sheet that not one of the 76 will come to cast their votes.” He is speechless when Newton asks him to write the same statement and sign it on paper and hand it to him.
This leads to a regular battle of wits, words, action, intelligence and experience between Newton and Atma Singh who leads a group of armed security guards appointed to look after the safety and security of the local inhabitants and specially of the Presiding Officer and his three assistants, one of them, Malko (Anjali Patil), an Adivasi who is on the side of the militants and does not care to hide her bias. The other is Loknath (Raghuvir Yadav) a 59-year-old polling clerk who knows the ropes and cannot understand why Newton does not.
For Newton, it is the underbelly of a democracy and an electoral process he never imagined opening up, layer by slow layer, such as, his junior, Loknath having come with a pack of cards and a cell phone filled with English films to bide his time as he knows no one will come to vote; or, Malko educating Newton on the basic truths of the Gonds who do not understand Hindi but whose children must study Hindi in school, at the same time not forgetting to point out that Newton, an educated, urban Indian does not know anything about many people in his own country.
Atma Singh tries to soothe Newton’s anxiety by persuading him that his team will readily vote in place of the original voters and get back to base but Newton is made of tougher stuff. When Newton asks Malko why the Naxalites have filled the walls of the burnt down houses with graffiti that does not read well, she says, “won’t they be angry if their houses are burnt down?”
The best part of the film is the powerful script and the very innovative and inventive direction by Amit V. Masurkar that invokes more laughter than anger at the constant exchange between and among the characters which evolves into black comedy at its best.
The actions, the reactions, and interactions between and among the characters draw humour even within the satire and the cruelty of the reality that sustains among these areas which the media talks so differently and deceptively about.
Yet, contrary to the definition of Black Comedy as “a comic style that makes light of a subject matter that is generally considered taboo,” Newton does not make “light” of the subject matter – elections, or, the lack of it, or, manipulated, cast by proxy votes, or, to stop the right feathers from being ruffled, or, understood as part of one’s duty, or, a strategy to get a transfer to a safer area.
Within its running time of 106 minutes, Newton takes serious but funny pot-shots at several social and political realities as follows:
(a) Newton’s parents try to make a match for their M.Sc. qualified son with a 16-year-old, ninth standard drop-out because ‘the girl’s father is a building contractor and as a government servant, Newton will become rich very soon’ and also because ‘they have promised a dowry of some ten lakhs’;
(b) Atma Singh is eager to get back to base because, as he complains to the “White” television journalist and his “officer”, he and his team are not given night-vision glasses and other equipment that compromises their functioning and their safety;
(c) the high-ranking police officer from the city tries to both flirt with and impress the White woman television journalist with false stories of India’s “democracy running deep” which the journalist swallows whole;
(d) adivasi villagers forced to kill their own chickens, curry them up and send them for the electoral and security team’s heavy lunch;
(e) Atma Singh trying to explain the voting process to the gathered villagers, all quite old, calling the voting machine a “toy to be played with, simple and easy” which makes Newton turn red in anger and
(f) last but never the least, the ‘ambush” that happens and instils enough fear to make everyone run for safety till….
Swapnil S. Sonawane as DOP offers a model lesson on how a film with a high political note shot entirely in the forests of Dandakaranya should be picturised on a low key, with muted colours dominated by ambers and siennas and browns, very few close-ups, with the camera playing magic all the way through incredibly beautiful frames from beginning to end.
The same applies to the two music directors, Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor who point out the value of a low pitch and controlled sound track filled with the ambient noise of the forests, with notes of a chorus song by the villagers heard in the distance, the ambience suddenly jerking back to life with loud sounds of gunshots, running, chasing and the works.
Shweta Venkat’s editing takes one’s breath away because Newton is a film that must have been very challenging for a relatively young editor. The rich visuals are complemented with a very effective sound-track.
Angelica Monica Bhowmick’s production design of the empty and deserted school-turned polling booth, the graffiti-filled walls of a burnt down, ramshackle, village dwelling, the small huts with a doddering old man hiding behind an upturned cane basket, are tiny gems of reality infused into a beautiful film.
But the cake and the frosting go straight to the actors. One wonders who to pick out and who not to. Rajkumar Rao has been mesmerising us with his magic versatility beginning with Queen, followed by Shahid, then Aligarh, Trapped, Bareilly Ki Barfi and now Newton. He is a bag of surprises and one cannot guess what he is going to pick out of his bag for which film and when. As Newton, he mostly wears a deadpan face but blinks very often. His deadpan expression disturbs the others.
Pankaj Tripathi is equally versatile as is Sanjay Mishra is a very brief cameo where he tries to make Newton look for his faults and take care of his arrogance. Raghuvir Yadav with his gained girth adds flesh and blood to the diabetic but cheerful Loknath while Anjali Patil is a wonderful discovery as Malko.
Did I hear you say that the director is being accused of having plagiarised the story from an Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001) with the gender of the protagonist, a young woman in the original film turned into a young man in Newton? Secret Ballot won not less than six international awards.
But then, another story is doing the rounds. This story involves a young journalist named Mangal Kunjam who has been working in the core Maoist area for last five years and is known for his nuanced reports. He has faced continuous threats from security forces for reporting fake encounters in the Dantewada region. Masurkar says that the question of plagiarising does not arise as he and his screenplay writer wrote the story in 2013 while the Iranian film was made in 2001. Kunjam on the other hand, has been photographed and written about widely after Newton was released.
At this point, it does not really matter whether Newton is plagiarised or whether it is close to the experience of the real Kunjam because what overrides all these debates is that – a film that questions the electoral process so openly and so critically has actually made it to the Oscars!