Oscars: India's 'Newton' Reflects the Political Reality of the World’s Largest Democracy

'Newton' still - H 2017
Courtesy of Drishyam Films

Director Amit Masurkar says the box-office success of his political satire shows there is an audience in India that wants something beyond Bollywood.

Amit Masurkar’s political satire Newton is the rare Indian independent film that has won international festival acclaim, glowing reviews and, most important, box-office success at home, collecting an impressive $5 million (316 million rupees). Top that with its selection as India’s Oscar entry timed with its release date.

Given that Indian cinema is dominated by formulaic fare, Masurkar tells THR that Newton — India's official submission in the Oscar foreign language category—  has struck a chord with moviegoers because “there is a new audience that wants something fresh. India has the fastest growing internet and mobile phone population in the world, which means that even people in small towns are much more exposed to international content than ever before.”

Following its premiere at Berlin, where it picked up the CICAE (International Confederation of Art Cinemas) award for best film in the forum section, Newton has traveled to about 40 festivals, including Tribeca.

Newton revolves around Nutan Kumar (the title character, played by Rajkummar Rao), an honest government clerk who is sent to a remote jungle in central India’s Chhattisgarh state to supervise elections where opposition guerillas don’t want them to be held, reflecting the political reality of the area. The film skewers local politics in India a number of ways, including a scene where an election officer tells the illiterate villagers that the ballot machine is just like a toy that has colorful symbols of the various political parties. "You can press the button on whatever [symbol] you like," he tells the voters.

Newton is produced by indie banner Drishyam Films, which has backed a number of titles that have performed well on the festival circuit such as 2015’s Masaan, which won the FIPRESCI Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. The film is co-presented by Bollywood filmmaker Anand L Rai’s Colour Yellow banner and distributed by leading film entity Eros International.

Masurkar, 36, says he dropped out of engineering college and started work as an intern at MTV India “and never looked back.” After some odd jobs on film projects, comedy writing and developing scripts, Masurkar made his directorial debut with 2013’s well-received slacker comedy Sulemani Keeda, about two struggling scriptwriters hoping to make their mark in Bollywood. For his sophomore outing, Masurkar says he wanted to explore “a bigger idea that could connect with more people.”

And what could be bigger than elections in the world’s largest democracy, with over 800 million voters, which Masurkar considers “a fascinating story in how elections are conducted from small towns in the Himalayas to the Lakshadweep islands [off the south-west coast].”

Masurkar says he pitched the idea to Drishyam CEO Manish Mundra during a 20-minute car ride as he traveled to the Mumbai Film Festival, and Mundra immediately greenlighted the project. In addition to actress Anjali Patil and actors Pankaj Tripathi and Raghuvir Yadav in key roles, the film’s sense of realism is heightened by the inclusion of non-actors from around the areas where the film was shot in Chhattisgarh.

Masurkar says the film’s Oscar submission “has already helped us so much. This is what a filmmaker wants, to reach out to a larger audience. I just hope the journey will continue.”