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Newton review: Rajkummar, Pankaj Tripathi excel in superficial triumph of electoral democracy

Release Date: 22 Sep 2017 / Rated: U/A / 01hr 45min

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Mayur Lookhar

Director Amit Masurkar’s dark comedy holds up a mirror to the different facets of life in an insurgency-affected area.

Vote for change. We hear these words every general (Lok Sabha), state (assembly) or local body election as they are drilled into our heads by politicians and the media. If you don’t vote, nothing will change, they tell us. Still, for many urban citizens, especially the cynics, voting has become a mundane process and some don’t even bother going to the poll booths.

Our inaction is a reflection of 16th century English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton's first law of motion — an object remains in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external unbalanced force.

Director Amit Masurkar has used this principle to create Newton, a dark comedy set in the jungles of a Naxal-infested area in the state of Chhattisgarh, one of several Indian states affected by insurgency.

Born Nutan Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), Newton Kumar is a relatively inexperienced government clerk who is assigned to conduct free and fair elections in a little village (Dandakaranya) in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. Newton is aided by Loknath (Raghubir Yadav) and there is Malko (Anjali Patil), a local educated tribal woman who, too, has been appointed by the Election Commission to help bridge the communication barrier.

The election, though, has to be carried out under the watchful eyes of the Indian security forces, led by Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). Newton embarks on a day's journey that opens his eyes to the superficial show of Indian electoral democracy.

Masurkar and co-writer Mayank Tewari have penned a rich story set in a poor land that serves as a mirror to life in a Naxal-infested area. What is the truth of the land? Masurkar leaves that up for debate with his principal characters following their own ideologies. Be it the army, Newton, or Malko, they are all simply doing their respective duty.

Perhaps the only ones who don’t really have a voice are the tribal voters. Naxals or the army, vote or boycott, their lives will remain the same. The righteous Newton believes their vote will usher in change, whereas Aatma Singh is an eternal pessimist. For Malko, the exercise brings nothing but a sense of deja vu.

Newton thrives on the ideological tug-of-war between Aatma Singh and the clerk. If Newton is the heart, Aatma Singh, as he is aptly named, is the soul of the film. Tripathi steals the show as the pessimistic but humorous soldier. His repartee, delivered with the most deadpan expression, dissuading Newton from carrying out his task honestly, leaves you in splits. For instance, Singh tells Newton the chicken gave two eggs after being interrogated. Without being overtly intimidating, Aatma Singh tells Newton who is the boss in the jungle.

Newton’s righteousness would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud, and Rajkummar Rao chips in with a brutally honest performance. The character, however, is marred by a sense of anguish, cutting a disconsolate figure at the low turnout and the farce of democracy. That doesn’t allow Rao to manoeuvre much, but the gifted actor unleashes Newton's rage at the most critical juncture.

Rao will perhaps be honest enough to admit that he lags behind Tripathi and seasoned actor Yadav in the entertainment department here. Loknath (Yadav) is a goofy misfit for the job, but the seasoned government official compensates for his slackness and inefficiency with his rustic, babu (bureaucratic) sense of humour. He may not be funny every time, but it’s Loknath’s blabbering that lightens the mood in the polling booth, especially with his jhombi (zombie) tales.

Actress Patil chips in with an academic performance. Also worthy of praise is the inspector general of police (played by actor Danish) who is more interested in impressing the foreign journalist than taking stock of the election. The officer wastes no time flirting with the journalist and telling her how good she looks in her ‘whats app’ display picture.

For all the fine performances by the cast, one shouldn’t forget the effort of the local tribals who showed no fear in facing the camera for the first time.

A fine, socially relevant plot, backed by a taut screenplay and admirable performances makes Newton a delightful dark comedy. The screenplay drags a wee bit in the first half, but it doesn’t derail the film. Newton has all the elements to be a coming-of-age satire, but, more importantly, it addresses a grave issue (the Naxal conflict) in the most subtle manner without any bias.

In urban or rural India, the virtues of voting might be overstated and Newton may do little to usher in a change in the Maoist regions, but the film does pose a potent query to Indian audiences: how long will you pander to the cinema of escapism? How long will you keep your eyes shut to meaningful, socially relevant cinema?

Ushering in this change requires no election, nor any voting machine.

Below is a video of Masurkar talking about Newton to Cinestaan.com