Newton is India's official entry for Oscars. That's not the only reason why you should go watch it
It's a film that encourages conversations on the many flaws that are prevalent in the world's largest democracy.
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It's not every day that you watch a Hindi film that makes you dwell on Indian democracy. Amit Masurkar's second feature Newton is that rare cinematic experience which triggers a range of thoughts and emotions. It's a film that encourages conversations on the many flaws that are prevalent in the world's largest democracy.
It's a film in which its honest hero, election official Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), is reprimanded for being a stickler for rules and regulations but also nudged for his ignorance of an India beyond his comfort zone. Nobody's a hero or a villain in Newton. Instead all key characters are employees serving the country. It's a matter of great honour and pride for them but as Masurkar shows it's also the toughest job out there.
Newton's premise - a team ventures deep into the jungles of Chhattisgarh to conduct an election in a remote village of 76 voters - reminded me of a report which looked at the challenging process of taking voting machines to a village in Andaman Islands so that its 261 registered voters could cast their ballot in the Lok Sabha process.
In one of the many hard-hitting scenes in the film, Newton has to explain to the elder locals gathered to vote to how the machines works and who their candidates are. Masurkar adds tension to the proceedings with the presence of a security force there to protect Newton and his three colleagues from the threat of Naxal insurgents, who are referred to as Pakistanis to confirm their enemy status.
Nobody’s a hero or a villain in Newton. Instead all key characters are employees serving the country.
Chief among these wary armed officers is Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) whose shortcut suggestions undermine Newton's authority as well as India's democratic values. Theirs is not a match made in heaven but their war of words shows us two different sides of India - one cold and realistic, the other humane and optimistic. Neither is right or wrong for Newton is well aware that humans are a fallible species. Their frailties are laid out in this drama where a dose of humour is always by the side.
Aatma Singh's constant distrust of the locals who inhabit the area highlights the strained relationship between the armed forces and the locals. The former has the power of gun which enables them to intimidate the populace, while the latter are victims of not just violence in this case truly from both sides but also government apathy. With this scenario Newton paints a stark, inconvenient truth about Indian democracy. It's like the radiation treatment which weakens the system even as it fights cancerous cells. As Malko (Anjali Patil), the voice of adivasis here, tells Newton: Change doesn't happen overnight. You got to hang in there.
In its ability to immerse viewers into the landscape the film is set against, Newton brings to mind Chaitanya Tamhane's Court, one of the finest films to come out of India in the last decade. Its exposure of mistreatment and inequality too will disconcert viewers. And much like Vivek Gomber's lawyer Newton's parents too are insistent that he get married soon. In this case they see no wrong if the girl is a minor and not a graduate so long as she delivers dowry and care. Die-hard fans of Court will also chuckle at the olive oil reference.
But while Tamhane's stellar critique of India's judicial system leaves you despondent, Newton is keen to highlight the bright side of the picture. Its everyday, sensitive and unsung hero, one whose education is backed with a willingness to be open-minded, isn't giving up on the dream of an ideal India.
The likes of Gautam Bhatia, Prasanna S, Kritika Bhardwaj and Apar Gupta, the lawyers who were part of the legal team that guaranteed Indians had a fundamental right to privacy, and Alt News' Pratik Sinha, who is countering fake news with true, hard facts, are just some of the many Newtons that exist amidst us. Like their actions, Newton restores faith that yes, we can.
Its selection as India's official entry for the foreign language category at the Oscars is further validation that its idealism is not misguided.