“Newton”… A marvellous satire that takes its issues, but not itself, seriously

Posted on September 23, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

In Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, a rigid, rule-bound, middle-aged bureaucrat left the city to go hunting in a forest. There, an alert local girl made him aware of how little he knew, and how wide the rural-urban divide is in our country. Reduce the age of Sen’s protagonist, add a splash of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam (but without the suffocating nobility), and you have the curly-haired Election Commission officer, Newton (Rajkummar Rao, who, at this rate, will make critics run out of ways to praise his performances). In his first scene, we see him munching an apple, so we don’t forget the other Newton by the film’s end, where the latter’s Third Law is quoted: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The premise of Amit Masurkar’s Newton, then, can be inferred from the physicist’s (the older one; though our Newton, too, knows his Physics, having graduated in the subject) First Law: An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless a force acts upon it. The object at rest is India, and it’s personified by Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi, who, also, at this rate, will make critics run out of ways to praise his performances), a Central Reserve Police Force Officer whose squad oversees a Naxal-infested jungle in Chattisgarh. He doesn’t see the point of Newton’s mission, which is to ensure smooth polling in these parts. (It’s the Lok Sabha election.) Why risk one’s neck for 78 tribals — chew on that number for a second — so cut off from civilisation that they don’t know who the candidates (or what the party promises) are?

One may remember the Second Law now: The rate of change of momentum of a body is directly proportional to the force applied. And so Newton forces Aatma Singh and his troops to accompany him (and his colleagues) to the middle of nowhere, where they set up a polling booth in a school in an abandoned village. Again, we think of the first time we saw Newton, fixing a fuse during a blackout. Over here, there’s no electricity to begin with.

Among the film’s (written by Amit Masurkar and Mayank Tewari) many triumphs is its refusal to make Newton a hero, Aatma Singh a villain. The latter loves his country. He protects it with his gun. It’s just he doesn’t really get what Newton is after, the principle of the whole thing. He calls it an “election picnic.” Newton, in a way, is the anti-Aatma Singh. The latter says, “I will lay down life and limb if and when the situation arises.” Newton is saying, “I am trying to ensure that, at least in theory, the situation itself never arises.”

I never imagined I could feel uncynical about our country’s often-farcical electoral process again, but an early scene made me positively wistful. It’s when everyone walks into the jungle, carrying plastic chairs and supplies and an EVM. The tribals may not know whom to vote for or even why they need to vote (given how little things change for them), but they should still be provided the opportunity to vote. What they do with this opportunity is another matter. That they be included in this process, even if it involves risk to life, is the very bedrock of democracy.

Not that Newton probably cares. When he played cricket as a kid, he was the umpire — now too, it’s all about rules and results. He isn’t interested in the philosophy of it all. He’s just a conscientious worker out to do the job entrusted to him, even if it means grabbing a machine gun in a brilliant scene. Sanjay Mishra gets a funny cameo as the Election Commission head who instructs people like Newton on what to do. They raise hands and ask questions, and this motif of learning runs through Newton. The tribals have to be taught how to vote. Newton himself has a lot to learn, which may be why he’s seated in front of a blackboard in the school that’s now a polling booth.

He has to learn about the other India. (Anjali Patil, as an Adivasi named Malko, plays the Suhasini Mulay role from Bhuvan Shome.) He has to learn not to take himself so seriously. The Sanjay Mishra character tells him, “Bahut bhaari naam hai. Apni mahaanta odhe ja rahe ho.” (That’s a mighty name you have. It’s like you want to advertise your greatness.) There’s an arranged-marriage scenario early on, where Newton walks away when he realises the girl is a minor whose favourite film is Saajan Chale Sasuraal. The latter fact alone may be grounds for disqualification, but even with the former, there’s the sense that Newton objects not because it comes from within but because the law says so. The film calls out this pompousness as “imaandari ka ghamand,” that he feels superior about his righteousness. After all, he isn’t doing anyone a favour. He’s just doing his job.

Given these lofty themes — and other ones, like Hindi imposition on Gondi children, or how unaware we are of people who live but a few hours away — you may expect the movie to be like Newton himself, smug and self-righteous about what it has set out to accomplish. And it does accomplish quite a bit in its less-than-two-hour running time.

Take the last shot. It makes you wince that nothing has changed. Newton refuses to break for lunch five minutes before the scheduled time, while, behind him, a colleague is reading a newspaper: he isn’t even working. Another film might have played a cello under this scene, but Naren Chandavarkar and Benedict Taylor’s score is subdued: just some light, martial-sounding percussion here, a mournful (though not melodramatic) clarinet there. There’s no musical highlighting when Newton is gently rebuked by Malko. Instead, there’s lots of silence, which makes us aware of time standing still in this jungle called Dandakaranya. Yes, the one from the Ramayana. This satire even makes room for a bit of sanskar.

There’s a lot that Newton could have patted itself on the back for, and there are some oddly triumphal notes: a foreign correspondent who adds nothing, or a discussion about the number five turning into a clenched Naxal fist. But consider this: while walking towards the school, in the scene I earlier said made me wistful, a character stops to take a shit. The film takes its issues — and not itself — seriously. The Ramayana allusion? The setup for a punchline about Ravana being our first pilot.The detailed discussion about the flow of people-traffic through the polling booth is a hoot; it’s as though they’re planning a heist. Newton even answers a long-festering question. Aatma Singh offers Newton and his cohorts eggs for breakfast and chicken for lunch. At least here, there’s no question which came first.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi