What would Satyapriya Acharya, the inflexible moral centre of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam, have thought of Newton Kumar? He might not have been too impressed by his changing his name from Nutan, but apart from that it’s likely he would have seen the young man as a kindred spirit: wedded to the rulebook, consumed by a sense of duty. Released in 1969—not long before another young man suggested righteous anger as a viable response—Satyakam functioned as an elegy for the betrayed hopes of independence, then only two decades in the past. No such pathos exists in Amit Masurkar’s Newton. The idea of letting down the nation now seems quaint—the system was broken so many generations ago that questioning it seems not only unwise but outrageous, even anti-national.
Newton, an office clerk volunteering for election duty, is sent to conduct polls in a village in the Maoist-influenced forest region of Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh. He’s palpably upright, so much so that an instructor (Sanjay Mishra) warns him in their first meeting that his problem isn’t that he’s honest, but that he’s so proud to be that way. “Imandari se dil halka hona chahiye (honesty should make the heart light),” he says, correctly sensing that Newton carries his virtue around like a heavy burden.
From the moment Newton and his fellow officers Loknath (Raghubir Yadav) and Shambhoo (Mukesh Prajapati) land in Dandakaranya there’s friction. On the way to the CRPF camp, one of the soldiers refers to a nearby area as “Pakistan”. When Newton presses him, he shrugs and says that it’s enemy territory, but that the Naxals don’t control it any more. At the camp, the officer in charge, Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), suggests that they don’t need to venture out, that his men can conduct the elections themselves. It’s only when Newton insists that he sign a declaration to this effect that they’re outfitted with bullet-proof vests—all except booth-level officer Malko (Anjali Patil), a local, who insists she’s safer without one—and escorted by the platoon to the polling venue, an abandoned school in a compound that’s been burnt down, in all likelihood by the paramilitary forces.
If Newton’s honesty hangs heavy, there’s another weight—equal and opposite, as it were—that creates the film’s central conflict. Aatma Singh, who’s tired of the upright Newton from the minute he sets eyes on him, eventually hands him his rifle and asks him if it’s heavy. “Yeh desh ka bhaar hai (This is the weight of the nation),” he tells him. A beat later: “Aur hamaare kandhe par hai (And it’s on our shoulders).” The film’s sympathies are certainly with Newton, but the acute screenplay (by Masurkar and Mayank Tewari) refuses to turn Singh into a simple antagonist. Like Newton, he’s doing what he feels is his duty—keeping the polling officials safe while allowing for the appearance of an election. Does it really matter if actual voting takes place? Why bother, when the locals don’t know how to use a voting machine and have never heard of the candidates before?
Against the active opposition of Singh and the skepticism of Loknath and Malko, Newton soldiers on. He isn’t blazingly intelligent—the film is full of instances of people educating him or telling him he’s missed the point—but he’s unusually determined. This makes him a great fit for Rao, who’s at his best playing mid-level strivers in over their heads. The clipped tone and stiff manner he adopts here makes for an amusing contrast with Tripathi’s unhurried, slightly cracked voice and perpetual hangdog expression, which lend an unexpected poignancy to Aatma Singh as he bats off Newton’s bursts of outrage with inconvenient truths and bald lies.
If Newton and Aatma seem to embody radically opposed ideas of India, Malko and Loknath—wonderfully played by Yadav and the quietly effective Patil—are the adjusting, ever-practical public. “Saalon lag jaate hain jungle banne mein (it takes years to make a jungle),” Malko tells the dejected Newton. But she also realizes the worth of his stubborn idealism, and hands him a lifeline. Loknath, reading Newton’s future in a pack of cards, pulls a five of spades, and dismisses it as useless. But Malko knows better. “Five,” she says, and makes a fist. She does a quick clenched salute which, given the region and her ancestry, could mean everything or nothing. “Six” – she points to her head. Newton, so trussed up in what ought to be taking place, is being encouraged to trust his senses and see what’s really happening.
This is Masurkar’s second film, an impressive leap after the low-rent movie-biz comedy Sulemani Keeda (2014). The only significant drawback that struck me in two viewings is the blurry image in several scenes—even assuming that some of this was deliberate, there does seem to have been a recurring problem with the camera focus. I could also have done without the image of villagers holding up their voter-ink-marked fingers for the camera—the sequence has a music video triteness that is far removed from the un-didactic approach of the rest of the film.
In a seemingly throwaway scene, Loknath tells Malko and Newton about the mythological significance of the forest they’re in. Dandakaranya, he says, is where Sita was whisked away in a flying chariot by Raavan. “This makes Raavan India’s first pilot,” he concludes. “Sri Lanka’s,” Newton corrects him. He’s joking, but this exchange strikes me as a perfect example of the film’s sly deflation of national pride, and a foreshadowing of Malko’s advice: think things through. I’ve done that, and can say with confidence that Newton thrilled me like no other Hindi film this year.
This review appeared in Mint.