This is a guest post by RITUPARNA SENGUPTA
Amit V Masurkar’s recently-released film Newton explores facets of Indian democracy at its most vulnerable. For these times of ‘nationalist’ bravado, this is a courageous topic. The film is so named because it adopts for the most part, the point of view of its protagonist, Newton (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao, thank you once again!) who resists corruption and hypocrisy at home and work.
An upright and idealistic electoral presiding officer, he volunteers to oversee free and fair elections in Konar in interior Chattisgarh. With a meagre total of seventy six registered voters, the zone is notorious for the influence of Naxal rebels who violently reject electoral processes. The name of the protagonist is no accident. As ‘Nutan’, he is the harbinger of newness, of change. And as Newton, he is, as someone explains to him about his famous namesake, a levelling and democratising agent, attempting to show that the same rules apply to all, the powerful and the powerless. Specifically, Newton lives up to the promise of his name (apple biting included!) as he realises Isaac Newton’s laws of motion (here, change)—he is the ‘external force’ that propels things out of their status quo, but equally, he realises that every motion has an equal and opposite reaction. We see through Newton’s sincere eyes, a lot that is askew with the country’s democracy today, especially the massive-scale elections that the world’s biggest democracy so prides itself on. As he travels through the densely forested area, he takes us along as it were into the nation’s subconscious terrains, where the yawning fissures of Indian democracy are most disturbingly transparent.
Newton’s delightfully apt antagonist, (CRPF?) commander Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) is at the other end of the spectrum from him. He too claims to be doing his duty, and cloaks his many acts of misdemeanour under a perverse sense of entitlement as one who bears the burden of the nation’s safety. If Newton lives zealously by the rulebook, Singh has at best, casual disregard for procedure and is at worst, a cunning manipulator of due process. He keeps dissuading Newton and his team from setting up the election booth and tries his best to establish the region as ‘unsafe’ because of the Naxalites, even as we see that it is he and his team who repeatedly disrupt the peace of their environment and treat the locals with indignity and intimidation. He consistently talks down to all but his superior, and repeatedly refers to his previous postings at Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland, as proof of his awareness of the reality of ‘these people’. The film initially portrays Newton-Singh’s frequent sparring as humorous repartee, swaying in favour of one and then the other, but grows steadily darker as Singh threatens and bullies the election officers and the voters and then unleashes his wrath on Newton for defying him. We are given to understand that his priorities are quite different—the sanction of new equipment (night goggles, etc.) to make his ‘brave boys’ safer in these hostile regions. These then are the weapons with which he seeks to uphold the country, instead of the elections that he is in charge of protecting. By pitting ideologues of opposing persuasions against each other, the film helps complicate our understanding of representation, democracy and nationhood. In case we turn sceptical at the lack of nuance with which Singh is portrayed and rush to condemn him as a villain, we are left with a radically different image of him at the end of the film. In the penultimate sequence, we inexplicably see him shopping in a supermarket with his family, pushing a cart in civilian clothes. Abrupt as the scene appears, we are given a glimpse into a different man—a family man with a wife and daughter, who can be pleasant, even indulgent, and whose profession apparently determines his ideologies.
And yet, the film refreshingly declines from making us identify completely with the self-righteous indignance of Newton, who after all, is an ‘outsider’ to the ignored, exploited tribal people whose right to vote he zealously tries to protect, as he goes about his duty. (The forest’s name Dandakaranya is meant to invoke the legendary forest of Ramayana; are we meant to draw parallels between notions of good, evil, othering and righteousness in the two tales?) In this regard, his two important interlocutors are his commanding officer who briefs him on his duties (a brief, yet significant cameo by Sanjay Mishra) and his colleague, the local booth-level officer, Malko (Anjali Patil). Both these characters put his idealism in perspective for us. The former does so by alerting Newton to the arrogance of his honesty that makes him think of the observance of his duties as a gift that he bestows upon mankind (This reminded me of the similar deep sentiment voiced by the grandmother in Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan). Malko, is the Adivasi primary school teacher who is treated with suspicion by the accompanying paramilitary force, as a possible Naxal informer. As Newton grows increasingly exasperated at the state of affairs at the booth, first with the lack of voter turnout and then with the subsequent charade of voting, Malko wisely impresses upon him that change does not arrive overnight, like it takes a long while for a forest to grow. Lest Newton mistake his one-day stint as an opportunity for him to become a saviour, Malko explains that this state of affairs is something she has grown up with and mildly berates him for being unaware of such realities, indeed such people, despite residing not too far away from the tribal belt. Her comments draw our attention to the slow erosion of democratic values over a period of time (or their inconsistent presence from the beginning) and the convenient indignance that mainstream India sporadically professes for the oppression of the marginalised. As she leaves towards the end of the election day, she advises Newton to recognise and act by his sixth sense (as compared to the rules he so rigidly follows).
Newton (2017) directed by Amit Masurkar (image courtesy IMDB)
The crucial motif we find is the question of representation. The film takes great pains to alert us to the dangers of ventriloquizing the adivasis’ opinions. For the most part, they speak in the local Gondi that needs translation. Two translators take up this job, one of whom is Malko. Even as Atma Singh’s local stooge surreptitiously conveys misleading information to the people, Malko intervenes and becomes a conduit of communication between Newton and ‘her people’. And yet, she too falls prey to her good intentions, as she conveys to Newton that torn between the Naxals and the police, what the villagers want is freedom from both, an extrapolation that Newton is quick to recognise. On the other hand, some things are hard to translate. The concept of democracy and elections, for example. When Newton realises that the villagers don’t know how to use the EVM, he gathers them outside to deliver a lecture on how to cast one’s vote and the purpose of it all. The villagers uncomprehendingly ask why they need a leader when they already have a tribe chief, or what they will get in return for the exercise (put as a blunt monetary query) and which one of the candidates would get them the best rate for their produce (ironic since Newton knows that no politician considers them worth wooing). Newton, the perennial asker of questions, for once finds his own discourse of modern nationhood and democracy challenged.
The absolute penury and persecution that the villagers face is often presented to us—in the form of three boys rounded up as spies and forced to entertain the officials, as people being misled about election protocol, and most chillingly, as people who are later hounded in their huts and dragged forcibly to the polling booth to present a picture of a functioning democracy to the media. In a striking long sequence that is clearly meant to be an analogy, as the officers round up the villagers one by one, a woman among them chases a flapping chicken around, before beheading and then cooking it. Later, after casting their vote, when they are interviewed by national and international journalists about whether they feel any fear, they tellingly remain silent and in the background, we see officers with guns, the same ones who forced them to come along, standing guard. This silent juxtaposition of the oppressor (masquerading as the protector) and the oppressed, is a powerful image that stays with us, reminding one of disconcerting stories like Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’. Though the film does try to leave things open-ended and teetering between idealism and cynicism, the political sympathies of the film maker are evident in the curious shadow presence of the Naxalites, the display of huts burnt by the police and their callous and apathetic behaviour throughout and finally, the recourse to the gun that we see towards the end of the film.
Newton (2017) directed by Amit Masurkar (image courtesy IMDB)
I disagree with the film’s classification as purely satire or dark comedy—one need only compare it to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro orPeepli Live or Being Cyrus to realise this is both and something else. The film’s sense of humour manages to tread the fine line between witty wordplay (‘laal salaad’!) and disturbing recognitions too close for comfort. Perhaps the best example of the latter is when two local police recruits teach an election officer how to make quick money—by ‘surrendering’ to the police, with the reward getting more lucrative with the sophistication of the weapon being also surrendered. This fascination with ‘technology’ also finds its ridiculous counterpart as a canvassing candidate promises the electorate a mobile in one hand and a laptop in another and later, when electoral officer Loknath (Raghuvir Yadav) suggests that the Naxalite rebels can be tamed by bestowing upon them colour televisions. Whether the film is worthy of being India’s official entry to the Oscars is debatable, not because of the controversy over its alleged plagiarism (possibly an ill-founded allegation), but due to the feeling of ‘unfinished business’ that the film leaves the audience with. However, there is no arguing that much like its protagonist, it is a refreshingly honest and sincere film that is thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time, but unlike him, deliberately not overtly ambitious in its reach. If the film strikes a few false notes and appears to venture into the absurd (too much id, ego, superego anyone?!), it is helpful to read it in terms of allegory and symbolism (indelible ink, empty blackboard, sprained neck). Moreover, the acting by each member of the lead and supporting cast—notably Pankaj Tripathi, Raghuvir Yadav, Sanjay Mishra—is pitch-perfect.
Newton leaves us with many hard-hitting dialogues and images that give the film its solid character and nudge us towards introspection. For instance, on the way to the booth venue, Newton hears the area likened to Pakistan. When he wonders aloud, he is told the self-evident truth that the enemy equals Pakistan, thus bringing into focus the casual ease with which Pakistan enters popular discourse as the enemy par excellence, that can be made to bear the brunt of all that is antithetical to the commonsensical understanding of the Indian nation. Ultimately, Newton is a gift for the Indian audience that is often nowadays inundated with feel-good stories of national progress, that comfort one’s sense of patriotic pride. Newton pierces our collective conscience, and our blinkered patriotism that cannot tolerate any blemish on the image of the nation that we so hold dear. For both Atma Singh and the villagers, democracy is akin to a farce. This forces us to question: What makes a democracy work? How is one to identify with such abstract concepts in the face of immediate realities and loyalties? In the end, the film is not just about the illiterate and impoverished, as it makes us dwell on our own token participation during the occasional election, that makes us smug with the knowledge of our contribution as citizens to the democratic functioning of the nation.
[Rituparna Sengupta is a PhD scholar in Literature at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. ]