'Newton': Film Review

Courtesy of Drishyam Films
Three cheers for democracy.

India's Oscar hopeful is a political satire about a bureaucrat whose mission is to conduct free and fair elections in a tribal backwater.

India is the world's largest democracy, a title which, at election time, does not sit lightly on a country of 1.3 billion citizens from multi-ethnic backgrounds. The subversive genius of Amit V. Masurkar's sophomore feature Newton is how it brings out the best and the worst of the electoral system in the form of an offbeat comedy. Starring Rajkummar Rao (Shahid, Aligarh) as a greenhorn polling official sent to collect votes in a remote jungle, this smart indie is amusing all the way to its bittersweet conclusion.

Following a successful festival run that began in Berlin, it has also done exceptionally well at the local box office, grossing nearly $5 million after being selected as India's Oscar submission. In a year when the value of democracy has become a worldwide debate, it should stand a good chance of winning votes abroad.

It's a great story and it has been done before, for example in the 2001 Iranian film Secret Ballot by Babak Payami, where the polling official is a committed young woman who is reluctantly escorted around a desert island by a soldier while she hunts down voters. It ends up being an exercise in frustration for the idealistic vote-taker.

In Newton, Masurkar (Suleimani Keeda) and his co-scripter Mayank Tewari choose a different key to tell the story, less fable and more absurdist comedy. The professional cast is well-versed in ironic social nuance. Both exasperating and endearing in the title role, Rao again shows he is a chameleon actor whose gift for poker-faced comedy revs up the figure of a rigid young civil servant. One wonders if part of the film's local popularity might be attributed to his heroic vindication of the bureaucrat, that much-reviled figure so common in India, who follows rules with such maniacal precision that it takes all day to mail a package or get a refund.

Rao plays young Nutan Kumar, who has changed his name to Newton — an unbending government bureaucrat in the making. Behind his bland, Forrest Gump-like expression lies a will of steel and a determination to carry out his orders to the letter. Although he has an M.A. in physics, he gets a job as a government paper pusher, soon learning that no file moves without a bribe and that he would be better paid working in a call center.

Then Election Day rolls around and the country's 800 million voters are called to the ballot boxes. Volunteering to help, he is chosen as presiding officer of a remote polling station in the state of Chhattisgarh, reachable only by helicopter. Accompanying him to make sure everything goes according to the rule book are a local liaison (the savvy Anjali Patil) and a jaded veteran pollster (Raghubhir Yadav), who knows to bring along a pack of playing cards. Both actors offer crucial supporting turns.

Their first encounter in the jungle threatens to be their last. The local Army commander Atma Singh (a refreshingly realistic Pankaj Tripathi) informs them that Maoist rebels in the area have already shot one candidate to death and are threatening to disrupt the election. He announces bluntly that "no one will vote" and they may as well go home; the Army will collect the votes for them. This idea is soundly rejected by our hero.

Marched through the jungle under Army escort, the trio is finally installed in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse where they set up at 8:00 a.m. sharp and wait for business. But it isn't until word arrives that a foreign journalist is on her way to Newton's forlorn outpost that voters start showing up — under the same compelling Army escort.

After a while, even Newton has to wonder what they are doing there. The local tribal inhabitants, who have never voted before, have no idea who the candidates are and don't even speak their language, Hindi. How does voting benefit them? "All that changes is the framed portraits of our leaders." But in the final reels, the film soars from this moral low point to its deeply poignant conclusion that it isn't how you vote that matters, but that the democratic process is carried out throughout the nation. 

A final showdown between Newton and the commandant comes out of the blue, as tense and unexpected as it is totally absurd, motivated by Newton's dogged idealism and his realization that nothing is as important as being free to cast your vote. Or is it, nothing is as important as following the rules of the game? In this case, the two coincide. This slight ambiguity in the screenplay undercuts what could have been a conventional schmaltzy ending and leaves the viewer wryly bemused.

Production company: Drishyam Films
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Anjali Patil, Pankaj Tripathi, Raghubir Yadav
Director: Amit V. Masurkar
Screenwriters: Mayank Tewari, Amit V. Masurkar
Producers: Manish Mundra, Pramila Mundra
Director of photography: Swapnil S. Sonawane
Production designer: Angelica Monica Bhowmick
Costume designers: Salvi Chandrashekhar, Sachin Lovalekar
Editor: Shweta Venkat
Music: Naren Chandravarkar, Benedict Taylor
Casting: Romil Modi, Tejas Girish Thakker
World sales: Drishyam Films
Venue: Eros International screening room, Mumbai
106 minutes

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