Amit Masurkar’s Newton is a movie microcosmmirroring mechanics of humongous Indian democracy specially in showing heterogeneous players playing their part in a mammoth exercise of people exercising their franchise, BY senior IAS officer and filmonalyst Sushil Kumar.
‘Newtonn’ in indeed novel attempt in numerous ways: unlike previous Indian films portraying process of elections at top echelons and that too mostly about circumventing the process for pursuing for naked personal ambition of political offices or purses, Newton for the first time, decides to bravely depict the grass root electoral process on which the entire edifice of world’s largest democracy rests. The film portrays running of ramshackleand rusted wheels of bureaucracy that run democratic train and deliver results despite contradictory pulls and pressures all sorts. In nutshell, basically Newton is a superb film with a simple story with substantive substance and nuanced metaphorical meanings; the script simplistically scrolls a linear story through successive shots on screen sans style.
Some of the tribal pockets in Chhattisgarh are hotbeds of insurgent activities and are virtual liberated zones of Maoists and Naxals, where ambushing of security forces is a recurrent phenomenon that has included injury/ killing of elected politicians including minister/party chief of a political party of Madhya Pradesh. Film’s is contextualized in that region. Film depicts continuing challenge of Indian State in periodic reaffirming of legitimacy of democracy ; it is done by ensuring each individual exercises his right of franchise,freely, without fear , even in a hamletensconced in remotest corners ofChhattisgarh- a State severely impacted by insurgency ,where village population is torn in protracted strife between the Indian State pushing its presence and Naxalites/ Maoistsequally ready to resist and tear down any advancing visible symbol of State’s presence ; and that presence itself requiring protection through continued presence of para military / police personnel ;this contradiction is brought out by the film’s interesting story line.The film also alludes thatthe police deployed to fight Naxals have increasingly assumed the role of gatekeepers to these lands, allowing other to visit as tourists, duly escorted by them of course.
The film interestinglyalludes to interesting anachronism of Indian democracy, internationallyfamed and celebrated as an example for peaceful conduct of election;where the State seeks to ensure people freely exercise their right of casting ballot even though under threat of cross firingbullets from nihilistic Naxals and assertive State.
The film has created a buzz by winning an award in Germany and Hong Kong and on being declared an official entry to this year’s Oscars. Film definitely has a potential to earn accolades in the West; it puts functioning of the Indian democracy on a vaunted pedestal when it portraysthe State’s serious intent to protect people’s right to vote despite area being insurgency impacted ; and irrespective of whether their life changes or not for a small hamlet of 78 people and irrespective of the contradiction that local people have freedom to vote but must have protection of State while exercise their franchise and despite claims of elections being free and fair .
Film, without explicitly stating so, depicts India’s institutional efficacy in setting up elaborate systems for facilitating exercise of franchise by a massive electorate. These include of voting through voters’ ID cards, Electronic Voting Machine (EVMs), impartial personnel/observers, identification confirmation through Booth Level Officer(often local personnel to help the outside team).BLO, a local staff, has been integrated for identification of and communication with voters and now is appropriated by parallel electoral process of political parties who have set up similar booth level party head for campaign and monitoring purposes.
The film’s dialogues are simple and straightforward; yet are nuanced enough to convey allusions and metaphors containing some exceptional comments about ideas of democracy, State, peoples’ livesand functioning of the State machinery.These include when Newton is informed that wearing his integrity and honesty on his sleeve or as badge on shirt in no way is a favour to anyone ; and when BLO states that all efforts ( alluded to democracy, empowerment, informed opinion amongst tribals) take time specially if done at the grassroots level ; and when she simply says she is an Adivasi and not a Naxalite or of any ideological orientation , as at basic existential level that’s the reality local people live in- not in ideological identification or belief in ‘isms’ or any other ‘import’.
The film is wonderful in keeping the story and message simple:that, if the important instrumentalities of the State, in this case the police and civil administration, discharge roles/responsibilities enjoined upon them, then Indian democracy will run its full course – unlike risks faced in countries of entire South and South East Asia. But, if they themselves turn partisan,India has problems a plenty specially in making a mockery of electoralprocesses and making democracy hollow, a farce, havingform but sans substance or soul. The independent institution of Election Commission of India is the single reason why world’s largest exercise in enabling electorate to exercise their franchise is famed and respected all over the world and Newton is the front soldier of that institution.
The film’s action is contextualized for conduct of election, possibly of the State Assembly (as evident in first scenes) if not ofParliamentary; the story would have been a perfect portrayal in depicting how little life is affected at bottom end of society where marginalized tribal or Scheduled Castes eke out an edgy existence. But after the 72ndConstitutional Amendment, these sections have been formally integrated through mandatory representation through reserved seats into elected Panchayatsor village committees prescribed through Panchayat Act (Extension to Scheduled Areas) 1996 (called PESA).
The movie highlights the glaring gaps of functioning of Indian democracy which assumes certain levels of literacy for electors. For a pre-literate tribal society, the democracy in substance may not be new due to their egalitarian social structures and election of village headman like Patel pre-existing even before formal democracy reached them; what they can’t comprehend is that unlike their inner social democratic election, the other elections hardly lead to any action for them.
The film tellingly brings out tribal’s terrible trysts, for decades, with State administration in addressingtheir local existential and livelihood issues (like rights over minor forest produce such as mahua trees referred in this film) without any worthwhile change in their material and physical condition. Of course, after centuries of struggle, the Indian State has formally recognized their right over land through issue of patta rights under Restoration of Forest Rights Act.The legal provisions of PESA and Sixth Schedule further strengthens their egalitarian systems including elections within the community.
The film also brings out beautifully the irony of one-time interaction of ‘outsiders’ with interior pockets where change or development is still to touch lives; this interaction once in five years,when both the electors and the State machinery is equally surprised, is rather eye opening realization of the other’s existence, only to forget for five years, again.
The film’s location shooting adds realistic flavour of tribal habitat. The choice of Rajkummar, Raghuvir Yadav, Anjali Patil, Pankaj Tripathi,Sanjay Mishra and Omkar Das Manikpuri (Peepli live protagonist) contribute to characters completely coming alive on screens in conveying actual social context. The costume designers, art and casting directors need to be appreciated for – creating a real feel throughout the film starting from training building, bus, jeeps, tents, uniforms, media presence, peeling plasters off walls of school building, mosquito nets, escort parties nets etc.
The film is interspersed with not only wisecracks and witty one liners but is replete with facial expressions and acts/actions conveying it all – like of police official nudging, nodding of head and flinging of arms, bewilderment and blank expressions of tribals on being taught about EVMs and election process, an illiterate voter pressing the button and blanklystaring, of herding of small flock of tribals to polling station and following que to vote etc.
The coverage of election process by western media personnel is typical leitmotif of all emerging democracies to seek legitimacy of elections by showing conduct of elections donewithout fear and favour. The film incidentally shows an interesting side as to how foreign media is usually chaperoned by the senior State officials.
The character of Newton is well etched out before he embarks on election duty when stands up against his father’s choice of marriage partner. Rajkummar brings idealism alive on screen through his stares and blank expressions. Raghuvir Yadav is convincing as usual as is the actor -who played the role of his son in Peepli Live -performing role of a local policeman. Anjali Patil is a perfect foil to realistic portrayal of Newton by Rajkummar and is natural in role of tribal BLO specially in some telling comments about ‘isms’ and ‘things take time’.
The film will find favour with western audience as it plays upon the motif of individual idealism and heroism in standing up for an issue/ cause even at the risk of life. The incidental issues of strong individualism, democracy, right to vote, electoral process add to appeal. The espousal of cause of democracy against huge odds will directly appeal to West specially when elections in Venezuela, Kenya and other nations are perceived to be vitiated. The film may strengthen belief amongst international audience thaterstwhile stories of rampant electoral malpractices and violence in India specially in Bihar and UP have become things of the past specially when seen in the contrasting contexts of elections in of Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, Iran, China, Myanmar, Kenya etc. Though the allegations of disguised threats and intimidation still persist but in substance and style , the Indian democracy is now feted and celebratedworldwide. And any one working for this cause will receive praise from the western world. Please recall similar successes of films like Missing, Z, Killing Fields, Lawrence of Arabia etc. in the western world. For this reason alone, another Iranian film titled Secret Ballot glorifying greatness of democracy received international acclaim and recognition; that film also used the motif of a lone ranger acting as a champion of democratic election under suspicious supervision of a soldier.
One should also not miss an interesting depiction of how a lower civil or police official can publicly comment about limited availability of manpower or fighting equipment openly on news media or public platforms. Remember, recent controversy about jawans complaining about leave and quality of food in India. In Newton, the police official openly complains about need for night goggles and other shortages of equipment.
The film isn’t preachy and platitudinous; instead the message is in metaphors and allusions like about honesty, democracy as work in progress process and time still needed for consolidation of democracy as western democracies did while evolving.
As stated, the film will find ready appeal, identification, applause and awards all across the world due to a simple story beautifully told without any complication of thought processes. It has not moralistic judgements. It keeps it simple and straight and depicts connections with certain universal aspirations and experiences. The story will resonate with all cultures and countries – those in democracy and those moving towards lofty goals of democracy.
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