Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi are two of our best actors, on top of their game in Newton . As polling officer Newton and CRPF commandant Atma Singh, they also represent the two ends of one of the many divides that have polarised contemporary India. It’s a face off between idealism and cynicism, faith and conviction as against scepticism and misgivings, unbending uprightness and involvement versus dissipation and apathy. One is on a mission to conduct free and fair elections in Dandakaranya in conflict-ridden Chhattisgarh; the other, having seen many such polls, regards it as just a mock up — does anyone truly care about an election? The nation’s own dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes play out in this battle of the contrarian forces and pulls.
- Director: Amit Masurkar
- Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Raghubir Yadav, Anjali Patil
- Storyline: Polling officer Newton Kumar is bent on conducting free and fair elections in the conflict ridden jungles of Chhattisgarh
It’s a short, straightforward and simple film but far from simplistic. Director Amit Masurkar uses humour to make his point than get all moralistic, being quietly effective rather than shrill. For instance, what could be more ironical than a politician selling the idea of laptops and mobiles as “development” to the most backward of regions in the country? Not just the politicians, everyone is at the receiving end of writer Mayank Tewari and Masurkar’s wit — the political and administrative machinery, the CRPF and the insurgents; even Newton’s middle-class parents. Child marriage, dowry, bribery, corruption, class divides, our obsession with English, Hindi dominance, cultural homogenisation — there’s much that is up for questioning. Even Newton is not spared, whose pride in his integrity overruns his honesty itself.
The only innocent ones here are the tribals — caught between the state machinery and the insurgents. All that tribals want is the correct price for Tendu leaves but all they translate as is a vote bank. Masurkar lays bare the deficiency of the democracy yet there is an underlying belief in it. The only weapon the tribals have is the vote and an active participation in democracy is the way out. Will democracy itself survive? The telling image of the election party moving through the jungles under CRPF protection itself says a lot in its absurd poignancy.
Watching the film I was struck by the artistic landmines it could have potentially got trapped in but manages to navigate well. To borrow a line from a Peepi Live song there is the “Rang rangeela parjatantar” cliché complete with the cut-outs and posters of the candidates bought readily by the West every five years of the Great Electoral Circus. On the other are the ethnographic cut-outs — the ant-eating tribals — that can easily be rendered exotic, not just for the foreign audience but the unaware urban Indians too. But Masurkar uses one line to sort it all out, a line which took me back to a communist-cartoonist dialogue that Guru Dutt used in his 1955 film, Mr and Mrs 55 . When local tribal officer Malko (Anjali Patil) is asked if she is a pessimist, she says, “ Nirashawadi nahin, main adivasi hoon (I am not a pessimist, I am a tribal)”. Haven’t tribals carried on relentlessly despite the hardships and struggles? Not to speak of the mining, ecological disasters and depleting forest reserves adding to their woes.
Things do get heavy handed and border on the farcical in places — gathering voters to show off before the foreign journalist for instance. The opening disclaimer explaining Maoism and Naxalism felt needless and reductive more so when they are grounded and contextualised in the film. It kept rankling at me throughout.
Isaac Newton’s law of gravity might be the greatest equaliser — one that, as per the film, obliterates the class difference between an Ambani scion and a tea vendor when they both fall freely towards the ground from a mountain. It’s the fairness and egalitarianism that motivates the hero Newton too. But there’s also a cussedness and obstinacy to him, a headstrong quality in the way he sticks to his principles that make Newton seem like the new Gandhi, the inner Mahatma that needs to come alive. If only he could be as effective as Gandhi was in his times.