Newton is a slap in the face of cool, urban Indians
The film makes us ponder over issues that seldom bother our quotidian lives.
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After watching Newton, there have been loads of doubts and queries hovering about my mind. The immediate expression after the film got over was of intense loathing. Not for the film, which was a visual treat in more ways than one, but for the puerile Indian middle class which was giggling, chortling away, only to break the link with intermittent roaring laughter. Are we supposed to laugh the same way for a slapstick comedy on the one hand and a piercing dark comedy like this one on the other?
I didn't feel any difference as collective laughter in the theatre is a fine example of how ridiculously aloof we are from emotions of fear, violence and helplessness. This class has only one similarity, a potent one at that, with Newton, the main character of the film: it is resoundingly oblivious to not just who the Naxals are but also Naxalism as a fractured, geographical phenomenon. In fact, this class is Newton minus his punctuality and sincerity. You know you are a doomed case when we guffaw at the prospect of ant chutney. The follow up dialogue by Malko, one of the central characters of the film, is striking. She chides Newton (and the popcorn consuming netizens at the same time) of how we are unaware of a place and its lifestyle which is barely two hours away from a metropolitan city. This was a tight slap in the faces of all the cool urbanites who never noticed that they are actually laughing at the mirror that was shown by Malko to us.
The booth matters here like nowhere else.
The character of Newton, I thought, is more punctual than sincere. The final scene where he is visibly excited about getting an award for punctuality is an easy giveaway. But there is more to it than the obvious dialogues. Newton is not someone who exercises his sincerity and honesty in a more expansive sense. His punctuality is limited and concerned only within a rigid framework that has been charted out by the State. His sincerity is not capacious enough to question or even think of a half-hearted rebel against the very system he is part of. For him, his work is his religion. But his work is embedded in a social psyche that has been ingeniously moulded by the State over the years. He is honest and sincere.
At the same time, how does one discern the honesty and sincerity of the framework in which you work? There is almost a tacit agreement at work — you see Sanjay Mishra's character advising Newton on how one should keep working and be concerned with only with one's occupation and change will follow.
The scene stayed with me for some time for its utter lack of situating the moral in the political and the social. He does admonish anything antithetical to hard work but that is confined only to his lifeworld of sanskari duty. His idea of how change will happen when you do your own work stays with him in a more concrete sense than Malko's lament of how people like her have seen things remain the same all their lives.
I say this by recollecting one particular incident. When Krishna, the junior army officer, inadvertently blurts out that the voters have been coerced to exercise their franchise, and then gets hastily rebuked by his senior, Newton slips into a pensive mood for a few seconds only to reiterate his duty of getting the job done successfully.
Would it be considered an act of sincerity and honesty to carry forward an election against the wishes of the locals? For him, getting the job done in time is what matters the most. Bijli, sadak, paani and what can be called "social justice" are the issues on which he encourages people to vote. This again largely seems like a patent reply. Punctuality trounces sincerity in this way. And for the urban middle class, the ambiguity helps as to how one should keep doing one's work without breaching other corridors of powers.
Avoiding unwanted social unrest gets legitimised. The lack of social existence gets vindicated. It is not that the film is propagating the same but because of the abstraction, it leaves enough room for malleability of whichever narrative suits our existing lifestyle. The age-old dilemma of what exactly will the urban viewers take with them from a film like this persists.
Newton also resembles the urban class in a different way. His is a fine example of how one tries to assert autonomy in one's work, howsoever limited it might be, in order to countervail the paucity of the same in the private realm. Yes, he refuses to marry a minor but I get the feeling that it still comes from this sense of right and wrong from a perspective of legality. If anything, his idea of how one should at least be a graduate to get married can throw up many subsequent unnerving questions.
His impressionable mind is not just a factor of his raw age; he has not been subsumed in the cynicism that the system generates. It possibly also shows his lifestyle is detached from the identity of a rooted Dalit consciousness. It made me wonder as to what the possible differences between a rural and urban Dalit mind can be. Does it affect his conduct of daily routine? Does it have a bearing on the way he perceives punctuality in general? It was hard to fathom his emotion of shock and unease at a burnt tribal hovel when he is on his way to the poll booth. Aren't there any parallels between tribal and Dalit communities as far as being at the receiving end of oppression goes? Surely their nature must be different, depending on time and space. However, his reaction of disbelief and distress almost hints at how he doesn't know much about what these communities have been facing for years.
Newton reminds one of the urban middle class.
The portrayal of tribals hits you the most. Their fear is not evolutionary, but something that has been viciously constructed. For a bunch of people who find themselves at the wrong end of modernity and capitalism, their social behaviour itself is enough for the mainstream imagination to ostracise them. This poignancy is very well captured in the instance where the fear of getting caught unawares in a violent ambush is more frightening than the actual moment of violence.
This is a classic Foucaldian description of power at work. It need not be concentrated or diffused. It becomes active once its put into action. The tribals are the primary subjects that power needs to be acted upon. The punctuality of the presiding officer and the cynical pragmatism of the Army officer exercise their own autonomy in this wider, complex web of power.
Interestingly, they both seem to have a strong individual consciousness. Malko's character on the other hand, possibly the most important figure in the film, has a sharp sense of the collective. Her idea of the jungle is organic. It is no surprise that she believes in a form of development which is more gradual in nature. Her moments of silences, coupled with a rich array of telling visual imagery, are enough to read her grounding of the social and the political.
The film actually soars high when there are no dialogues. And in this world of complete uncertainty, the media plays the part of a saviour in a way. It is projected as an instrument, with reporters parroting patent cliches in front of the camera seeming like the lousy norm.
Tribals tell us elections are a farce. The Army demands more weaponry and equipment and the police underscores the success of the process of elections. The abstractness once again leaves room for the question of how deep-rooted the democracy is in India, as a foreign journalist proclaims, or to see the media as a part of the larger world which all of us have collectively failed.
A film like Newton is needed precisely because it makes us ponder over issues that seldom bother our quotidian lives. Film as a means of entertainment is an archaic idea. The success of Newton should lie in how it forces us to think about multiple possibilities to address our complexities; the film must not be reduced to moments of mindless giggling and chuckling.