'Newton' Takes a Close Look at the Slender Line Separating Democracy and Farce

'Newton' isn’t just political; it’s also deeply personal, searing with existential angst seldom seen in Hindi cinema these days.

Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2017, and is being republished in light of ‘Newton’ winning the Best Hindi Film award at the 65th National Film Award.

Quite early in Newton, India’s official entry to the 2018 Oscars, a young government clerk, Newton (Rajkummar Rao), alights from a helicopter and walks towards the heart of darkness, two villages in Chhattisgarh jungles, to conduct a Lok Sabha election. The villages, comprising 76 eligible voters, are torn by the armed conflict between the Naxals and the Indian government. The last election in the area saw 19 deaths. If not for Newton, it probably wouldn’t have seen an election this year. (An election commissioner feigned illness at the last moment and dropped out.) Newton, armed with sincerity, wanting to infuse democracy and order in the jungles, cuts a hero-like figure.

Amit V. Masurkar, Newton’s director, prods us to hang on to that thought – at least for a bit. He films Newton, enveloped in a gust of wind, from afar: a new man in an old world, who carries with him hope, idealism and an electronic voting machine. But this scene is a bit of an in-joke, because Newton is not a hero. He is certainly the centrepiece of the film, but for someone who perpetually finds himself in a whirlpool not of his own making – squaring off against parents to find a suitable wife, warding off callous cynical police officers, putting up with indifferent co-workers – Newton is anything but a hero.

Much of Newton unfolds in one day, in a span of a couple of hours, detailing Newton’s efforts to conduct a fair and smooth election. Newton’s intentions are noble. He wants to do the right thing; he wants to be a good man, but he doesn’t understand the people he’s with – not their language, not their history, not their wants. Newton, like so many of us, is an outsider in his own country. He, at best, can be a saviour. But a more important question, almost always hanging in the air, is: do the people of the village even want to be saved?

At one point, Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), presumably a CRPF officer, accompanied by his subordinates, rummage through the jungles to find voters for the election – many against their own will. They’re almost dragged to the polling booth, overwhelmed with a list of politicians, their party symbols, and then told to cast vote. It looks less like an election and more like a lottery. The line separating democracy and farce is both slender and shrinking, and the end result, flitting between absurd and poignant, not altogether unexpected: The first voter doesn’t know how to vote; he’s seen an electronic voting machine for the first time. A few scenes later, several villagers, one by one, show their inked index fingers to the camera – a gesture that is just that: a gesture, devoid of any meaning or purpose.

Newton is essentially an anti-bildungsroman. It introduces a young man, shows us his world, sets up a series of obstacles for him to overcome, and changes gears at the last moment, for it’s ultimately not about his eventual success or the lack of it, but whether that success has a larger meaning. Why do this – or, for that matter, anything at all – and for whom? Success perhaps, in that case, is to just keep going: an idea that is romantic and naïve only in theory. Marked by flourishes of dark humour, set in a land hosting a long battle between the people and their country, Newton isn’t just political; it’s also deeply personal, searing with existential angst seldom seen in Hindi cinema these days.

It is difficult to dislike Newton. Curly-haired, frequently blinking eyes burning with anger, Newton is constantly finding ways to be independent. But independence doesn’t come easy in a small Chhattisgarh town. Because it means living with, and at times appeasing, the family; colliding with rigid social structures; following norms – set of actions meant to suffocate, not liberate. Named Nutan Kumar at the time of birth, Newton took his first stab at independence by changing his name. The next whiff of freedom came through education: an MSc in Physics. The final frontier, promising lasting liberation, is a job, where Newton has done well: he’s not only gainfully employed, but he works for the government – the ultimate achievement for a middle-class everyman. And yet, despite all this, Newton craves freedom. He’s financially independent but that doesn’t mean he gets to choose a bride for himself – someone who is, at the very least, of a legal marriageable age. The last girl his parents made him meet had studied till ninth grade, and was a year-and-a-half shy of being an adult. Newton’s father berates him for rejecting the alliance, and admonishes him to not get ahead of himself. Newton’s job, in that case, is his only solace, a theatre where the full force of being Newton can be realised. But the tragedy of Newton is that no matter how much he performs, he’ll be denied an audience. His job won’t give him easy victories or an easy salvation.

Newton is, quite obviously, also different from others – from not just the villagers, but also the people he works or clashes with. Earnest and idealist to a fault, to the extent of being obsessive and an automaton, Newton is a misfit. His face betrays no emotion; he never lets his guard down. He is so single-minded about, and fixated on, his job that something feels off about him, as if he’s battling a psychiatric condition he’s unaware of. In fact, towards the climax, Aatma Singh, during a heated exchange, tells Newton, “Mental mat ho (don’t lose your mind).” Besides, the very fact that Newton frequently looks like a square peg in a round hole, nearly throughout the film, is a sly comment on the perception of sincerity in today’s times.

A still from <em>Newton<em>.

A still from Newton.

With a runtime of 105 minutes, a drama with a sliver of plot dealing with familiar Indian absurdities, Newton almost feels underwritten. And that might just be deliberate. A film like this – part of an on-going story, a messier bigger picture – can only go as far. Newton’s relentless pursuit mirrors the audiences’, wrapped in a question that leads to no straightforward answer: “What next” or, its desperate cousin, “what more?” And so, if Newton feels sporadically light and, for the same reason, underwhelming, it’s so because it’s locked in its own boundaries. Writers Masurkar and Mayank Tewari, who first collaborated on the 2013 breezy meta-indie Sulemani Keeda, show a firm grasp of the subject. The writing here is confident, understated and nearly always compelling. The false notes, thankfully, few and far between – in scenes overreaching for humour (a senior officer desperately trying to impress an American journalist) and in snatches of a pleasant, but an incongruent misplaced, song – come across as quibbles. The film is, however, at all times, held together by brilliant acting, featuring a great ensemble: Sanjay Mishra, Raghubir Yadav, Anjali Patil, and two actors who have given remarkable performances this year, Tripathi (Anaarkali of Aarah, Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi) and Rao (Trapped, Bareilly Ki Barfi).

But the most impressive and refreshing bit about Newton is that it glows with an earnest heart. The film isn’t a paean to idealism in any way; it is aware of its warts. Malko (Patil), a local Adivasi, cautions Newton about easy optimism and hope, saying, “Sir, great change doesn’t happen overnight. This jungle took years to grow.” But then cynicism is easy, too, and coupled with apathy and scepticism, feels lazy and undeserved. We’ve long lost the battle for a fair world; what we’re left instead with is an idea of it. And there are many among us who have discarded that boat, too. The pull is strong and people are falling, but Newton, betraying his namesake’s greatest discovery, is hanging on hard.