Satire has always been in a love-hate relationship with Hindi cinema. That’s primarily because the true impact of a tightly woven satirical script is so easily blunted by the genre mashing found in popular Indian cinema; a love story, a dash of slapstick comedy, elaborate song and dance numbers and even action set-pieces are often all laid out in the same arc. If we just look at mainstream Hindi cinema, Rajkumar Hirani’s recent Aamir Khan starrer PK (2014) is the perfect example of this. The film was at its strongest when it operated as a religious satire – for which it courted quite a lot of controversy – but the cumulative impact of that dose of darkly comic realism was blunted by a half-baked romance that felt wholly out of place.
Don’t get me wrong, Indian cinema does a lot of genre mashing very well. This is an industry that, through its commercial sensibility, perfected the masala film: an entertaining potboiler that mashes romance, action, musicals, horror, thriller and even slapstick comedy to create a unique hybrid product meant to appeal to an audience ranging from six to sixty years old. However, when it comes to creating an effective satire, this approach doesn’t work. There are only a handful of Indian films that purely operate within the expectations of a satire, the most memorable of which recently was 2010’s Peepli [Live].
Among this sparsely populated landscape comes Amit Masurkar’s Newton. A few years ago, Masurkar made a slacker comedy – another genre thoroughly unexplored in Indian cinema – called Sulemani Keeda. With his debut film, Masurkar operated within the confines of a genre space faithfully, avoiding the urge to veer off into masala territory. It’s great to see this trend in his work continue.
Newton follows our titular protagonist (played by Rajkummar Rao), a rookie election officer sent into the jungles of Chhattisgarh to conduct the first-ever election in that area, which has a voting population of merely seventy-six registered voters. It’s a landscape rife with political conflict: the Maoist and Naxalite groups operating there have already threatened the local population, hoping they will boycott the election. For their safety, our intrepid band of election officials – Loknath (Raghubir Yadav), Shambhu (Mukesh Prajapati), local officer Malko (Anjali Patil) and Newton – have to contend with the protection of security officer Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and his team. In this remote location, the by-the-book idealism of Newton and cynical realism of Atma Singh collide to produce a wonderfully unique piece of black comedy.
I have been looking for a reference point for some time to explain to my friends who have never lived in India exactly how messed up the democratic system there is. In Newton I have found my answer. India is the largest democratic nation in the world – in 2014 alone there were 814,500,000 voters and 930,000 polling booths in the country – but so often the collective judgment of this vast and diverse nation is to elect and the same candidates over and over, often those that have pending criminal charges and cases against them to boot, swayed by vote bank politics, casteism, emotionally inflamed rhetoric and instances of bribery.
Newton understands this absurdity well. The local indigenous population living in the jungle do not care much for the election, because no one really cares about them. If they don’t vote, they get harassed by the police for not voting, but if they do, they get threatened by the Maoist/Naxalite outfits. The priority is to get the votes, to make sure those votes are gathered in a ‘free and fair’ manner and that there is nothing blatantly fraudulent going on. Whether or not people understand their voting rights and their civic responsibilities are questions best left unasked.
But the film goes beyond this simple illustration of civics and taps into something much more uncomfortable to digest. The indigenous population of this jungle have their own set of laws that have been passed down from generation to generation. They even have their own local leader who they elected to solve their internal disputes. And yet, their entire system of governance is undermined when Newton and his team of officials try and convince them to vote for a leader who can represent them in Delhi. A leader who has never met them, who isn’t even aware of their day-to-day issues, let alone their distinct way of life. All these people want to know is who can get them the right price for the Tendu leaves they pick in the jungle everyday. ‘Democracy’ as a political concept and the civic responsibilities associated with it are as alien to them as their way of life is to Newton. This erasure of cultural laws isn’t Indian-specific, either. Read this paragraph again but now, substitute the Indian landscape with an Australian one. Replace the indigenous population from the jungles of Chhatisgarh with the indigenous population of Australia. The quietly devastating power of Newton is that the sense of universality embedded in its narrative forces the viewer to question political representation, true representation, in their own country.
Rao is the standout performer here. Newton is a tough character to get right: there’s the need to present the inherent pathos of a character ultimately nullified by its stoicism. But he passes with flying colours, playing it straight-faced in a way that reflects a traditionally English comic sensibility.1 As the film nears its end, there is a hilarious stand-off between Newton and Atma Singh, as they watch as the final two minutes of the voting day tick by. Rao’s character was never meant to succeed in his Sisyphean quest. And that’s alright. He goes back to his daily routine, enforcing his rules in his own, closed-off life – a dominion over which he has slightly more control.
The film is not a one-man show, though. Rao is ably supported by a cast in sublime form, including Raghubir Yadav as Loknath, the elderly election official nearing retirement who moonlights as a writer of pulp fiction stories. Omkar Das Manikpuri appears here in a short role, as part of Atma Singh’s team. Both Yadav and Manikpuri were also an integral part of the memorable satirical venture Peepli [Live], hence it’s no surprise they are completely at ease here in this film. Tripathi as Atma Singh is an able foil to Rao’s Newton. It’s a delight to see him explore his comic side after some intensely dramatic performances in films like Omkara (2006), Shaurya (2008) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Anjali Patil as the local officer Malko shines in a limited role. It was a pleasant surprise to see the immensely talented Sanjay Mishra in a cameo as Newton’s mentor, returning to a dramatic role after having been mostly pigeonholed as a slapstick performer in mainstream contemporary Hindi cinema. As he’s shown in recent films like Ankhon Dekhi (2014) and Masaan (2015), his potential as a serious dramatic actor still remains untapped.
There is only one song in the film and that’s used as the background score in the final act. I want to draw particular attention to this track because of its lyrics, penned by Varun Grover. Grover has carved a niche for himself by penning incredibly innovative and thoughtful lyrics for films like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), Udta Punjab (2016) and Fan (2016). In this film too, Grover’s words are like a sucker punch to the gut, as the cumulative impact of a political process that appears ‘democratic’ in name only reaches its inevitable conclusion.
If Court (2015) used its darkly comic sensibility to lay bare the nightmarish absurdity of the Indian legal system, Newton takes on that sensibility to provide an honest reflection of Indian democracy and its many contradictions. The strength of the film is its understatedness and its universality, the way it ultimately makes a fiercely political statement not limited to just the Indian political landscape.