Newton: A black comedy that uncovers the real issues
The film packs a lot of punch in seemingly innocuous shots
Amit Masurkar gets people. Not in some lofty ways that have to do with sociological or psychological aspects but in basic, humanizing ways. It is in the throwaway shot he inserts in the end, of the army officer with his family buying groceries for the month. It is in another shot where he shows a tribal woman preparing food even as she and her neighbours are being rounded up in aggressive ways so that they can go vote. We get the point of this shot only later and it pierces your heart. His film Newton (writing credits shared with Mayank Tewari) is at the heart of democracy and therefore at the heart of the individual and the collective. He frames his characters at the centre of the screen, almost like a photograph ready to be hung up on a wall. Perfect symmetry and all. Nutan Kumar aka Newton (Rajkummar Rao) doesn't care where the election is, what the situation is or what the voters know or don't know. Masurkar uses depth of field in inventive ways to suggest this. In the initial portions of the film, as we along with Newton, make the journey towards the school where voting is to take place in a Naxalite strong area of Chhattisgharh, during long shots, Masurkar's frames use a shallow depth of field, holding the individual in the clear while the jungle and the surroundings recede to the background, effectively inconsequential. Almost reflecting what Newton, the idealist, truly believes in. For him, as for democracy, people come first.
Newton, the film, packs a lot of punch in seemingly innocuous shots. We see Newton going over the election officer handbook and he is framed from outside his room with a photograph of B.R. Ambedkar hanging above his head. A fuse trips and lights go off as if to suggest that we have been in the dark since independence. After all, the seed for today's situation in areas such as the one Newton is set in, lies in the violent rejection of Ambedkar's principles. Masurkar is keen on locating this antecedent of the Naxalite/Maoists movement and more importantly, highlight the misunderstanding that is rampant. One of the army officers refers to the Naxalite stronghold as Pakistan because for him, Pakistan is nothing but a synonym for enemy. Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), the army chief, refers to one of the tribal kids as Mowgli. The election official team includes a local - an Adivasi and a teacher - Malko (Anjali Patil), who gives timely reality checks to Newton. He learns about their eating habits. He learns, from her, how Hindi imposition in a land where no one understands Hindi is a major road block for the kids' education. It helps that Masurkar has got together a cast that comes across not only as earnest when they mouth his dialogues but also natural. It never feels like they are imparting lessons or preaching. Rajkummar Rao, Anjali Patil, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra and the one who's made a career out of such roles, exuding a presence that is always heart-warming - Raghubir Yadav. Mishra appears briefly in the beginning, talking in metaphors of cricket and football, and Isaac Newton and gravity, calling out Newton's ego. A particular one about Ambani and chaiwala is gold, almost worth its weight. The pragmatist puts the idealist in his place.
Amit Masurkar has done something indie directors seldom do. They usually make an ambitious film steeped in indie flavour and when that turns out to be successful, go on to do a sophomore feature that is bigger and more soaked in the mainstream. Masurkar has done the opposite. He made his first film - SulemaniKeeda - as a presentable slacker romcom that retained the indie spirit while remaining accessible. With Newton, he is not only ambitious but also audacious. Newton is not great merely because it brings a social issue to the front bench. It's not a relevant film simply because it thanks Nandini Sundar and Bela Bhatia in its credits. It is also cinema. Mishra's character is only a preface in Nutan Kumar's journey of enlightenment. He is held up inside a decrepit classroom, in front of the blackboard like a teacher, but he is the one taking the lessons. The depth of field play that Masurkar puts up suggests something else too. When he arrives into the jungle, Newton is able to see only the people, his vision as blurry as ours. The latter portions of the film give way to deeper depth of field, the surroundings clearer, the situation unembellished. Inside the jungles, Newton has found enlightenment. In Masurkar's cinema, simple acts and conceits suggest editorials worth of meaning. A man following his principles and performing his duty is stifled by the system, and when driven to a corner, he turns to the only option available. This final act of Newton doesn't come across as some grandstanding and there lies Masurkar's genius. He shows you the cards and says - either you get it or you don't