We’re now officially in the Polar Age, where you stand for something, anything, as long as it’s on the extreme end of thought. Where if you’re not polarized, you’re not a world citizen, your self-righteous indignation the red-hot glow at your end of the spectrum. Where your mobile phones have lenses that are life-like and programmed to various tones to unsuccessfully capture life’s mottled and flawed canvas, but your touchscreen keyboard is now a rigorous shade of monochrome, any other shade apart from yours a heresy. Is this what democracy’s all about, across the world? Is this now the de facto way of life, and is this how life’s been irreversibly pinned to the wall of democratic thought, fueled by the low flashpoint that is now social media? And is there any place for a gentle sway of thoughts, any hope of us laughing at ourselves without being politically correct, instead of foaming at our collective mouths of flag-bearing righteousness?
Director Amit V Masurkar proves there’s hope. And he does this with a movie that’s unarguably carved its place in the rarefied group that will adorn the top of the list of 2017’s best movies. Newton is a stunning cinematic achievement, eschewing the high-ground or low-browed paths, choosing instead, to a take delightful path of rib-tickling, witty walk-around, not wearing anything on its sleeve, and yet making you cogitate on so many issues it highlights with the warmth of a friendly glow-worm.
With co-writer Mayank Tiwari, Masurkar scripts a fine study of characters, all of whom you feel for, empathize with, and want to know more about. Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) has been assigned election duty in the Naxal-controlled jungles of Chattisgarh, but before you join him on that perilous journey, you’re introduced to his character in other settings, giving you an insight into what makes him tick. And you know right away that Newton is honest, upright, and his favorite literary reading is The Rule Book. You also know right away that the chap will be one big misfit in what is to come ahead. In a beautiful scene at the beginning, the fuse trips in Newton’s apartment, and Masurkar keeps the camera outside the building, as Newton goes down to check, bumping into his neighbor, Newton’s mother intoning all that’s happening (and not) in Newton’s life, including the bugbear of all fresh graduates, marriage. The visit to a prospective bride’s house is done beautifully, the director gently ribbing at a platter of social mores and no-mores.
At the election office where the senior election officer played by Sanjay Mishra addresses the officers about the do’s and don’ts, you once again chortle at the banal practicality with which Mishra spells out the rules. “If there’s an attempt to capture the booth”, he says with a lovely flourish of his hands, “don’t try and be a hero. Let them take away the electronic voting machine (EVM). There’ll be a reelection.” The scene is done subtly, and you don’t even see Newton at first, seated in the second row of attentive officers. And later, in a tête-à-tête with Newton, Mishra’s character beautifully fleshes out Newton’s strength and foibles, as much for his benefit as much for yours.
But as with all human beings, Newton treats the advice with the human contempt that we’re all wired to treat advice with, and continues his dogged approach to conducting elections, now joined by his team and the army security, all trudging towards the election venue by foot, a ramshackle construction that used to be a school once upon a time. And in this leafy, quiet, and uncertain setting is where most of the movie plays out, even as you get familiar with the other major characters of the movie. There’s Loknath (Raghubir Yadav), the second-in-command to Newton, and who’s already seen more than his share of elections and conducting them. He’s diabetic, has asthma, and is simply keen to get over this exercise and hibernate into retirement. Malko (Anjali Patil) is the local teacher, who’s the only one mindfully straddling both sides of the election circus – the officials and the local tribal village. The third person in Newton’s team is Shambhoo (Mukesh Prajapati), whose biggest motivation to join in is a preceding helicopter ride. Plus, there’s Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), who’s in charge of the security for the team, and also the easy-going foil to Newton’s uprightness, his opposing partner in the ballet of the ballot.
Director Masurkar, cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane, and editor Shweta Venkat masterfully create an atmosphere of familiarity in the jungle and lace it with a portending cloud of ominous discomfort, the camera revolving around the school and the watchful security outside. There’s shots that take time to move, so you can soak in the jungle. Other times, the cuts are faster, and where your anxiety rises alongside, but always the execution seamless, the drama slowly swirling around the school building and its surrounding foliage.
Newton works at every level as a cinematic achievement, the dialogues flowing in a seamless mix of humor and commentary, the latter never bubbling up, but there for whoever cares to see it. The music score by Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor is as tight as the writing, sparse in its deployment, but stunningly effective, the clarinet, the jungle-beating percussion, and keyboards adding even more green-cover to the atmosphere.
And of course, the cast (take a bow, casting directors Romil Modi and Tejas Girish Thakker) who make the movie soar to where it might have just flown – Anjali Patil so very effective and wise in her act, knowing what works and what doesn’t, empathizing with Newton, and yet connecting with the hopelessness of her people; Raghubir Yadav masterfully soaking in his character, effortlessly bringing out his world-weariness with underplayed humor; Mukesh Prajapati is so very good, not speaking much, but unmissable; Sanjay Mishra in a cameo, but simply terrific, wiping his sweat in the steaming tea shop, explaining Isaac Newton’s scientific concepts using a common-man-and-Ambani example that is as much fun as it is telling.
In and as Newton, Rajkummar Rao is fabulous. He quite simply and endearingly cloaks the character in frustrating righteousness using deep blinks, powering his role with a manic focus that chugs away like an underground generator, cutting like a blunt machete through the thicket of his mission, and making it as funnily ineffective. And in what is one of the performances of the year, Pankaj Tripathi stuns you with his handle on his craft. Be it him crossing his hands and staring at the booth from afar, or him grinning a triumphantly goofy smile at Newton while pointing his head to his superior, as if to challenge the former, or when he delivers some superb lines that he lends heft to without raising his voice, Tripathi is a triumph. Underneath his misleadingly soft-pawed comic touch, his is a ferociously stirring performance.
Newton, then, is just what we need in our monochrome days of online polarization, its tip covered in wit, but underneath a bummock of thoughtful gravity. For, it chidingly shows us what democracy actually means to tribes living their seemingly anachronistically constructed lives around laws that are as old their genesis; it shows us that simply going electronic doesn’t lend any more meaning to party symbols than it did on paper; that neglected villagers in such areas are caught between the devil of the power-and money-hungry politicos (never mind the party affiliation) and the deep sea of murky self-proclaimed revolutionaries, who have an agenda that’s more invested in mineral-ransom than any real progress; that also caught in a deadly whirlpool of politics and land-grabbing is the army, as they struggle to cope with deleterious environs to do as they’re bid, even as the money that’s supposed to get them equipment gets lost in the sieve of the insatiable system; that next time you look at online photos of indelible ink that proudly proclaim the patriotism of the person attached to that finger, those very marks are used to make a mockery of that ‘likes’-driven patriotism; that, education in far-flung areas will continue to be a challenge as long as the textbooks and the local languages don’t align.
And yet, amidst all of this realization, amidst the length and breadth of the guffaws it generates, Newton shines hope and delivers the inevitability of life that must go on. A life in which some Newtons will work, pounding away at their desks with enthusiasm until it’s officially lunch-time, while others will leisurely read the newspaper through the day. And this is Newton’s biggest triumph – even as it delivers a revealing message on life’s law of averages, it is anything but.
Newton is rated U/A (parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years). Intense sequences of balloting and gun wielding.
Director Amit Masurkar Running Time 1h 46 min
Writers Amit Masurkar, Mayank Tiwari
Stars Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Raghubir Yadav, Anjali Patil, Mukesh Prajapati
Genres Comedy, Drama
Watch the trailer of Newton here: