Synopsis – A government clerk on election duty in the conflict ridden jungle of Central India tries his best to conduct free and fair voting despite the apathy of security forces and the looming fear of guerrilla attacks by communist rebels.
My Take – It took me a while to catch on to this one as the film did not receive a theatrical release in the U.A.E. but nevertheless I found a way to watch it & award it with the top slot in my best films of 2017 list. Yes, in my opinion, this Amit V Masurkar (Sulemani Keeda) directed film was with a doubt the best Hindi film released in 2017! Marking its World Premiere at 67th Berlin International Film Festival‘s Forum Section and released in India on the day it was announced as India’s official entry to the 90th Academy Awards (update: it’s official out of the race), this low-profile film thanks to the growing star power of its lead, Rajkummar Rao, and its glowing critical reception has managed to the needful by earning 31.65 Crore against its meager 9 Crore budget, despite its rare subject, i.e., a satirical take on Indian election process which discusses the loopholes in the system while strengthening the faith on world’s largest democracy. Films that often do well at international film festivals have a certain notion attached to them, of being able to cater only to a niche audience from a cinema going public. While, I do accept that the case is true for most films, this Amit V Masurkar directed film, while seeming to be appearing with a similar tag, does manage to defy this notion on almost all levels with its smooth and comfortable screenplay. This is just not a brave film but perhaps the most important film of our time as the film showcases how the manipulations are ingrained in the legal system, with no space for an officer with a conscience to lay down the rules set by the law. The best part of the film is how the script is made up of witty and subversive humor despite the seriousness of its subject matter, and to top it all, the presence of terrific actors like Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao, Raghbir Yadav, Anjali Patil and Sanjay Mishra guarantees the film to be a cinematic delight.
The story follows Nutan Kumar akas Newton (RajKummar Rao), a young, well educated and self-righteous government officer who carries his honesty as a badge of honor. When an official backs out from performing her election duty in the conflict ridden jungles of Chattisgarh, an area supposedly under Naxal influence / control, Newton jumps at the opportunity to take over as the presiding officer, along with his team, Loknath (Raghubir Yadav) and Shambo (Mukesh Prajapati), Newton is airdropped in Dandakaranya region, where he is safety is entrusted under the protection of Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), an Army Officer, who has served and looked over many elections in war-torn parts of the country. Also joined by Malko (Anjali Patil), a teacher and local booth officer, the team has only one goal in hand, to conduct a fair election and gather at least 70 votes, however, everything is not as simple as it seems, as Aatma is keen to get out of the election venue fearing guerilla attacks, Netwon is determined to ensure polling under any circumstances. What unfolds is a process driven eye-opener of what happens during elections in a Naxal hit remote poor tribal area in the heart of India. The apathy of the system, the deep rooted problems of tribes are extremely well capture along with keeping the flow of film light and not too serious. This one was simply the most relevant film to have come out last year. A rare film in Indian cinema and is a must watch for everybody who loves to think cinema as a powerful medium, as the film addresses the issue which has rarely been covered in Indian films, of being a critique on this so called Achhe Din peddling politicians. India is the world largest democracy, right? But what does it actually take to make a democracy? Told as a dark comedy that gives you equal measures of dread and disillusionment along with hope and hilarity, here, director Amit Masurkar has taken a bold step to explore the state of voting in extremely rural and sensitive area of Chattisgarh. There are various themes running under the surface like discrimination of minorities, paranoia, prejudice, power abuse etc. What does it take to do your duty sincerely? The film contains some very dark facts about our system. How ironical is the fact that nobody is working anything in the right manner but when somebody tries to do it right they start to oppose him/her? The fact that the whole film is a despair against India’s flawed system is brilliant to revere. While the notion of democracy sounds pretty simple it becomes fairly intricate and complex when our lead character tries to explain it to the native people. It is ironical that the army which is there for the natives are the one who terrorizes them. The film ignites the fact about the villagers who are unaware of the privileges they have to choose the leaders they want, despite having a voter ID card. The film also showcases the apathy of security forces and the hunger to get the limelight from media by high level officers. Without preaching the film tries to help us understand the importance of voting and how individual opinions can collectively establish or overrun a system.
Our need for an able administrator, our desire to take powers in hand, and our faith in the system while establishing an honest government all lies within our reach by just casting the vote. To begin the change, we must take responsibility and do our bit. Also written by Mayanak Tewari, the film painfully captures the bittersweet essence of the people of an obscure jungle that’s far-flung from civilization. Here, director Masurkar razes multiple Hindi film clichés to the ground in the film by resorting to low-key black comedy to tell a tale of tribal people being pulled in different directions by the police and Naxalites on election day, by making a tribal, 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 a tribal himself. The brilliance of the film lies in the fact that none of the characters here are fully right or wrong, there are no pronounced antagonists or villains here; neither is there any build up to a high voltage climax, and there is no pretentious attempt to find solutions to all the pertinent questions that the film raises throughout! It just remains a terrific understated satire or mockery on our democracy, zooming into the inconsequential existence of a bunch of tribal villagers who flee for their lives when chased, and try to figure out what’s in it for them if they vote because anyway they know that nothing is going to change for them! The black humor also does not spare the yellow journalism that goes on in the name of media reporting where most of the things fed to the viewers sitting hundreds of miles away is precisely choreographed and neatly presented, and is provided solid backing by law and administration! Amit Masurkar and Mayank Tewari‘s screenplay is successful in keeping this dark comedy consistent in its humor. They have not tried to find answers or solutions to the problems pertinent in our country, but have realistically portrayed the situations, without showing any violence or fights, the reality is felt through dialogues. One of the dialogues is: “We want to break free from both the government forces and the Maoists”. Another dialogue, when Malko is asked about her being a Nirashavadi (pessimistic), she responds “I am Adivasi”. Malko’s character reiterates the hard fact that nothing changes on the ground no matter how many elections are conducted. Director Amit Masurkar who has previously directed the criminally underrated independent film Suleimaani Keeda fairly succeeds in trying to evoke every possible emotion that he wanted to. From understanding the helplessness of the army and police to the plight of Tribals who want freedom from everyone, he lets us into a world that we’ve only seen through newspaper reading or TV channels debates. While he skillfully includes the conflicts all around, he makes sure to highlight where all the gaps are. As much as you want to take sides here, he makes sure you are thrown an equally solid counter to rethink. Even though the film falters a little towards the end in order to bring some unnecessary action, but that lapse is so minor to be overlooked at the over-all achievement, especially the acting department. Spear headed by its leading man and one of the finest and most capable Indian actors, Rajkummar Rao. Here, the National-Award winning actor gets into the skin of the character & doesn’t miss a single beat in his portrayal of an honest, brave and duty-bound man; the actor steals the thunder with his dynamic acting. Another major praise goes to Pankaj Tripathi, who wins hearts with a terrific performance. Here, Tripathi redefines the mastery of subtlety as the Army Officer who disagrees with Newton’s unrealistic honesty to his job. The minor confrontations & the conversations Between Rao & Tripathi, are the high-point of the film. The supporting cast is equally brilliant with Raghuvir Yadav, who with his hilarious one-liners & dry sense of humor, manages to surprise with an admiring performance, while, Anjali Patil too impresses with her simple yet powerful role. Sanjay Mishra is a delight to watch in his small role. On the whole, ‘Newton’ is a sharp and witty political satire that is brilliantly acted, impeccably written, lovingly shot, humorous, and a complete thought provoking watch.
Directed – Amit Masurkar
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 106 minutes