UMA DA CUNHA | 25 JANUARY, 2017
Amit V Masurkar’s ‘Newton’ will unfurl very shortly at the upcoming 38th Berlin International Film Festival (February 9 to 17), in its Forum for Young Cinema section, which has over the decades taken the initiative to focus attention on India’s independent cinema and its emerging new talent.
‘Newton’ is an indulgently eyed satire about a conscientious clerk in charge of the first ever election in a conflict-driven area of Chhattisgarh, who single-mindedly goes about holding free and fair voting while addressing an apathetic security force and fear of attack from Maoist rebels.
There is a refreshing difference in the themes of your second film ‘Newton’ and your debut work, ‘Sulemani Keeda’, which we saw towards the end of 2014. The latter is a wry but incisive look at today’s young people in India’s film capital facing crass rebuffs as they seek their Bollywood break and, on a private level, the awry love life that they encounter. Your latest film, ‘Newton’, goes far deeper with the same laid-back yet perceptive eye on the political imbalance in our country, seen through the idealism of its central character, who wises up to reality. What led to this leap in content and style?
Ever since I read the preamble of the Constitution of India, I wanted to make a film about democracy. The gap between what is written and what is practiced is huge. And such a gap is felt not just in India, but all over the world, including in developed countries. The only day a common person feels truly a part of democracy and its decision making process is on the election day when their vote is counted. And so a film set in the polling booth felt like an interesting idea to explore. It made more sense to set the film in a conflicted area where the staging of an election is a way for the government, and the stalling of the election is a way for the rebels, to show who’s in charge. The film is from the point of view of a rookie government officer who is obsessed with finding order in this chaos, and is adamant about doing his duty.
The theme dictated the content and style.
What led you to pursue a sensitive subject like Naxalism, while doing justice to all the different narratives that emerge from it?
In remote parts of Central India, a war is raging for decades between Communist guerrillas known as Maoists and the Indian state. The Maoists want to overthrow the government and establish a communist state. Some of their bases are in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. The indigenous people, Gondi Adivasis, who live in this jungle are forced to take sides between these two powerful entities or face repercussions. They are not allowed to have a third view and their basic human rights are being violated. The discovery of minerals and iron ore in the jungle has intensified this struggle, as mining conglomerates have come into the picture and want the land where the Adivasis live, vacated. The conflict is actually helping displace people from their own land. The situation is disturbing and I wanted to create an awareness about what is happening there.
My co writer, Mayank Tiwari and I used Newton’s Laws of Motion as the structure around which we built the story of the government clerk, Newton. The first act is about inertia, in the second act there is momentum, and in the third act there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
How do you perceive your main character? Does the way his initial commitment and purpose get whittled down indicate a growing up process that we as citizens must come to terms with?
My intention was to just tell a story of a purist who has a single minded focus to do his duty as prescribed in the book of procedures, and what happens when he is put in a situation which is out of his control. Despite realising that he is part of a farce, he doesn’t change, but sticks to his guns- literally and figuratively - and does his duty. Even in the end, Newton remains as obstinate as he was in the beginning.
Idealism is good but in order to survive and make change, one needs to adapt and be more pragmatic in this less than ideal world, without losing ones’ ideals.
What really breathes life into your characters are the wonderful actors that essay them so marvelously, especially Rajkummar, Pankaj and Sanjay Mishra. How did this near-perfect casting fall into place?
Casting Rajkummar was the producer Manish Mundra’s idea. The part seemed perfect for him. Raj brought his own self into the part. Like Newton, he too is extremely sincere, hardworking and focussed. I had directed Pankaj in the past. He has a quirky sense of humour and can appear menacing on screen if he wishes to. It’s a rare combination that he has used to his advantage in this film. I’ve been following Sanjay Mishra’s work for a while and wrote the part with him in mind. Once the casting is finalised, I always tweak the screenplay and dialogue to suit the actor’s personality and range.
The lovely touch at the end when the clear-eyed tribal girl, Malko (the wonderful Anjali Patel) enters his new disenchanted role in life. Does it hint that we must reach out to those ‘others’ to lessen the divide we face in Indian society?
In Gondi society, women are a lot more empowered and liberated than those in mainstream India. Gonds have their indigenous beliefs and don’t consider themselves part of Hindu society or hierarchy. Malko is proud of her roots and has experienced injustice. In Newton, she sees someone who is like her, empathetic, sensitive and agitated with what’s going on. That is their common connect. There’s no other hint intended.
Your first film was made at a really difficult time for the indie film Any views on what a filmmaker like you faces when it comes to working in the difficult distribution pattern of multiplexes and their dependence on star-studded, big-time releases?
‘Sulemani Keeda’ was made on a shoestring budget. It had a limited theatrical release but did extremely well on web platforms like Netflix and TVF. So there are certain films which find their niche if presented through the right medium. Distributors will only invest in a theatrical release if they see commercial value. One has to accept that consumption patterns are changing and adapt accordingly.
Hopefully, I won’t have to go through the grind this time around with ‘Newton’. Manish Mundra is a seasoned producer and has a marketing and theatrical distribution plan in place.