As someone who is keenly interested in politics, a dark comedy about elections against the backdrop of the conflict-ridden jungles of Dandakaranya is an absolute must-watch. So naturally, I watched Newton – and I wasn’t disappointed.
Newton Kumar, an upright and honest government clerk is sent on election duty to the Naxal-affected and conflict-ridden jungles of Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh, India. In between the insouciance of the security forces and the fear of attacks by Naxalites, he struggles to conduct free and fair polling for 76 indifferent tribal citizens.
Director Amit V. Masurkar and co-scriptwriter Mayank Tewari have crafted excellent characters and written remarkable dialogues that are delivered flawlessly by the talented cast. My favourite was, “Imandari se dil halka hona chahiye” (honesty should make the heart lighter). Newton is stubborn but also vulnerable, and the kind of guy who can easily be beaten up. Despite his impractical and idealistically naïve antics, you’ll find yourself rooting for him. Aatma Singh, played by Pankaj Tripathi, is a practical and experienced Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) commander. Anjali Patil does justice to the character of Malko, a local block-level officer who brings the Adivasi, slightly pro-Naxal perspective, into the story. Loknath, Newton’s colleague played by Raghubir Yadav, is a delightful character who accurately embodies the aloofness and concerns of a middle-class government employee.
The film does not have a storyline per se, and for a while, it tends to get slow in the middle. Throughout the movie, several sensitive issues are touched upon such as the practice of strategic hamletting in which villages are deliberately burnt by the armed forces so that villagers can then be moved to makeshift accommodation near army camps, the ill-treatment of tribals by the military, fake surrenders, the lack of supplies for the CRPF, and the “election tourism” orchestrated by the government for journalists. All these details and nuances are taken from various books such as Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita and Nandini Sundar’s book Subalterns and Sovereigns. The scene where Loknath suggests that to curb the insurgency, the government should introduce televisions in tribal homes because televisions will instigate greed and greed will extinguish the rebellion is directly picked from Arundhati Roy’s essay Walking with The Comrades.
Swapnil Sonawane’s cinematography gauges the aesthetics from each location and shapes each shot perfectly. Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor’s music must be credited with adding poignancy in a heartbreaking segment where clueless tribals are forced to participate in polling for the sake of cameras. There are no dialogues in that segment, but the haunting music accompanies the crass pretence of democracy.
While I laud Newton for highlighting an extremely important subject, I cannot help but discount Amit V. Masurkar for, what I feel is, playing safe. The film hesitates from taking sides and, under the guise of humour and neutrality, dilutes the complex issue of Naxal insurgency into a simplistic, unoriginal take on the state versus the Maoists. Newton could have been the finest political satire we have seen only if the director had chosen to be more overt and brave.
Nevertheless, the movie still deserves to represent India at the Academy Awards and I hope it inspires more people to watch it.
Feature Image Credits: Eros Now