Berlin: It freezing here in Berlin, as temperatures dip to minus five degrees. But our hearts are warmed by Amit Masurkar’s Newton, a delightful, very funny, political satire on the precarious state of democracy in the world’s largest democracy. The film has been received here with warm ovations and good reviews at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, which runs from February 9-19.
Produced by Manish Mundra of Drishyam Films and starring Rajkummar Rao, Anjali Patil, Pankaj Tripathi and Raghubir Yadav, the film plays in the International Forum of New Cinema section for more experimental cinema. It is Masurkar’s second feature after Sulemani Keeda.
Newton is set on election day in a polling booth in the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh in central India. The adivasis are trapped between the government armed forces who force them to vote, and the Naxalites who threaten to kill them if they do. The entire film hinges on the simmering rivalry between the idealistic Newton Kumar (Rao), a clerk posted on election duty, and the cynical Atma Singh (Tripathi), the local military commandant. Early in the film, we get a sense of Newton’s upright, inflexible character. Annoyed with his given name, Nutan Kumar, he changes it to Newton Kumar. In a hilarious scene, he walks out of an arranged marriage proposal because the girl is underage, leaving his father apoplectic.
Helicoptered to a government outpost in the Dandakaranya forest, he meets the commandant Atma Singh, who tells him to relax, as he will “arrange” for the votes. Newton, burning with a sense of duty, insists on walking to the remote village and waits in hope that the 76 adivasi voters listed will turn up. He is assisted by Loknath Singh (the wonderful Yadav), with Malko Netam (Patil), the local Gondi-Hindi interpreter. They end up swatting flies: the locals don’t care to vote because it makes no difference to their lives and the Naxalites have threatened them if they do. When a senior police officer escorting a foreign journalist turns up, Atma Singh arranges for adivasis to be rounded up like animals, herded to the polling booth and forced to vote before the media. They are illiterate, so in a screamingly funny scene, he explains the ballot machine as a khilona, a toy, with a carrot, ship, motorcycle and lota. “Jo achcha lage, daba do” (press the button on whatever you like). Despite the farce, Newton resorts to undemocratic means in order to “do his duty”.
There are superb performances by the ensemble cast, led by Rao, as well as Tripathi, Yadav, Patil and the adivasis. Swapnil Sonawane’s cinematography and Shweta Venkat’s editing are both effective. With a genuine feel for small town India, and rich irony, the screenplay by Mayank Tewari and Amit Masurkar, with superb dialogues, is a real winner. It is very heartening when young directors like Masurkar have the courage to tackle a political subject early in their careers, have genuine empathy for small town India and adivasis, and are comfortable making a feature in Hindi and Gondi. The distance from Sulemani Keeda, a low budget film about budding writers, and Newton, is significant. Newton‘s festival life is assured; we hope it will be released in India soon. Indian audiences certainly deserve this treat.
In fact, this is a very good year for South Asia at Berlin, and Newton is one of seven South Asian films here. The others are Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, Haobam Paban Kumar’s Loktak Lairembee (Lady of the Lake), Ashish Avikunthak’s Aapothkalin Trikalika (The Kali of Emergency), Amar Kaushik’s short Aaba (Grandfather), Dechen Roder’s Honeygiver Among the Dogs (Bhutan) and Bernd Luetzeler’s Camera Threat (Indian cast, set in India). There are also nine South Asians selected in the Berlinale Talents – Shubhashish Bhutiani (director of Mukti Bhawan/Hotel Salvation), Paulomi Ghosh, Natasha Mendonca, Archana Phadke, Archana Chidambaranathan and Abhro Banerjee (all from India), Haroon Habib (Pakistan), Rubaiyat Hossain (Bangladesh) and Rajan Kathet (Nepal).
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, and journalist. She can be reached on [email protected]