Tribeca entry 'Newton' mines humor from an election in the jungles of Central India

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Amit V. Masurkar’s Newton is about the eponymous hero who is a poll worker for the 2014 national elections in India. Newton’s reward for his patriotism is a post in the jungles of Central India, where Maoist rebels and the local police create substantial obstacles to a fair election process. The voters in this isolated area are members of the indigenous Ghondi tribe, whose lands have been recently usurped by multinational companies digging for iron ore. Making its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, the movie is a sly political satire.

In an interview at the Smyth Hotel in New York City, the Mumbai-based Masurkar (Sulemani Keeda, 2014) describes his hero (Rajkummar Rao) as a provincial. “He is a bit pompous, and he takes himself too seriously,” the writer-director says. “You can see that in the film, but that is what makes him endearing.” Newton, who has assumed his name because he admires Isaac Newton, leads a team of poll workers consisting of Loknath (Raghubir Yadav), a loquacious free spirit, and Malko (Anjali Patil), a beautiful and insightful Ghondi schoolteacher.

Newton also has to contend with Atma (Pankaj Tripathi), the head of the police force. He is a bully and a jaded personality who at first takes advantage of the young man’s naiveté. Atma neither understands nor sympathizes with the indigenous Ghondi. He and his men are under constant threat from Maoists who seek to overthrow the Indian state and who are skilled guerrilla fighters, accustomed to the jungle. The town of Chhattisgarh, where Masurkar filmed on location, is a real village and home to the Ghondi, who have lived there for 5,000 years.

Masurkar wrote the first draft of his screenplay without having ever visited the village. “I had to first make sure I had a story,” he explains. “Once the script was ready and I got a producer, we took our first trip there.” Then and on subsequent journeys with his casting director and location scout, Masurkar also tested his script for authenticity. “We wanted to make sure that we were not misrepresenting what was happening,” he says.

The writer-director was especially concerned with accurately depicting the conflict that has arisen on Ghondi land because of the discovery of iron ore, as well as the relationship between the Maoists and the Ghondi who feel disenfranchised by the Indian state. “The companies want the land, so what do you do?” the filmmaker asks. “You try to bribe the Ghondi. If you give them a million rupees, what would they do with it? They don’t want to live in the city. They don’t know anything but farming.” Masurkar’s view is that the Maoists exploit the Ghondi by making them foot soldiers in an impossible revolution.

Newton and Loknath are compelled to stay with the police in the evenings, and each day walk through the jungle, accompanied by them, in order to reach the polling place. Masurkar finds great humor in these sequences, especially when sparks begin to fly between his hero and the police commander. What the writer-director recalls when asked about these sequences is the chaotic conditions under which production took place. “We were shooting in March and it started raining,” he says. “The whole landscape changes, and you are making a film between nine a.m. and three p.m. You can’t light up a jungle.” Masurkar smiles. “You sometimes have to give up and make sure that what you really want to say is coming across, and just let the other factors play out.”

What unfolds in Newton is hilarious and disturbing, Masurkar continually questioning the machinery of democracy. The writer-director says of his hero: “Newton is not somebody who is very enlightened. He is not somebody who has the answers. He’s somebody who has the right intentions.” Because the Ghondi fear both the Maoists and the police, who for different reasons do not believe in elections, they do not show up at the polling place. Newton, distraught at the possibility of failure, arrives at a surprising resolution. “He is talking about these high ideals,” Masurkar observes, “and at the end of the film, he does something that is very undemocratic—but he’s human.”