Set in the media-infamous forests of Dandakaranya, Newton (2017) humorously chronicles the quest of a government clerk to hold fair elections in a tense political situation. The cleverly written opening sequence of Masurkar’s Newton appears to set the tone for the entire movie: by thrusting the spectator into the electoral victory and subsequent capture and assassination of a political leader, the movie seems to present what the audience expects. There is the usual code of representation that most (Hindi) cinema-going audiences in India would recognize- continuous and parallel cutting used to create a sense of events happening in ‘real time’ building into suspense, a newly elected and bloated neta being felicitated with garlands of marigolds, his conversation with (presumably) a family member, saying he will be home for dinner. With these cues, the audience already knows that this man shall not make it home. Sure enough, his car is ambushed by armed militants, and it judders to a halt. After a few shots of the distressed neta’s face and news articles covering the ambush, the audience is left to fill in the gaps. Having shown the spectator this carefully choreographed sequence of violence that does not make any significant departures from either the aesthetics or politics of representation in Bollywood, the film turns this logic of representation almost entirely on its head once the ‘title card’ and the casting is over. It is as if Masurkar uses the opening sequence as a template of how a situation like this would have been shown on the screen- and Bollywood has had perhaps one too many patronizingly righteous movies about insurgency(ies) within the Indian state- and then proceeds to use this template to mark just how much the rest of the narration departs from this template. It is telling that (spoilers aside) this is the only sequence in the entire movie where the Maoists in the area appear on screen. By ‘making them real’ in this sequence and then avoiding a visual or even an aural representation in the rest of the film, Masurkar avoids slipping into dangerously melodramatic or caricatural depictions of the Maoists or Naxalites. To provide some context, one could refer to Arundhati Roy’s article Walking With the Comrades, where she details a moment of hilarity when ‘Comrade Leng’ asks why Naxalites are always sketched out quite so recognizably in Indian film (whether in mainstream Bollywood or other vernacular cinemas), and then proceeds to fall into an accurate caricature of a “hunted-looking man” stepping out of the forest with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. Newton, in comparison, deftly sidesteps this trap, and instead uses the very absence of the Maoists on screen to build an entire narrative around.
This is not the only way in which Newton toys with spectatorial expectations. It manages to add a playfulness to its dark humour that makes the movie very refreshing for one set in the heartlands of the Indian state, the usually glossed over stronghold of the ‘biggest Internal Security threat’ to the country. The appeal of Newton lies in its modesty, and here the directorial intention clearly deviates from the protagonist who is portrayed with a great deal of skill and gentle irony. The exchange between Newton and his training officer for the Election Commission, included even in the trailer for the film, becomes a self-reflexive jab by the screenwriters as soon as Sanjay Mishra rebukes Newton of “imaandaari ka ghamand” (loosely translated, his self-righteous attitude). Each character included in the film, even Sanjay Mishra in this cameo, contributes an additional facet to the tightly constructed narrative. The film very cleverly uses the rather large cast of actors to evoke one of the foremost tenets of striving to realism in cinema- it allows ‘reality’ to lay itself bare. By utilizing this mode of representation and altering it with the addition of a healthy dose of satire, Newton manages to present to the audience a large picture that draws attention to its many pieces, and tempts its spectator into arranging these pieces to create meaning.
The character of Malko, played by Anjali Patil, remained one of the best parts of the film for me long after I had watched it. Though she is not one of the better-known faces of commercial cinema in Bollywood, Patil has also starred in Chakravyuh (2012), where she plays a Maoist revolutionary. Whether this was an intentional ‘quotation’ on the part of the film-makers or not, it provided an additional layer to the narrative when I ruminated about Newton in retrospect. In Newton, Malko occupies the position the filmic narrative hopes to situate the spectator in by the end of the movie. Interestingly enough, her introduction on screen occurs directly after a very charged confrontation between Newton and Aatma Singh that made me wonder what the movie would have looked like with a non-male protagonist. Seconds after I had posed this question to my friend in the theatre, Malko appeared on screen, wading out of the dark forest, framed exactly like Newton is in numerous shots, but in reverse- where he is always surrounded by light or the suggestion of it, Malko materializes out of the dark with a torch in her hand. As the Adivasi woman who is also an election official, she provides nuance and complexity to the entire narrative. She often counters Newton, undercutting his more idealistic grandstanding with her levelheaded prior experience of the world they enter (to which Newton is a complete stranger). Her deadpan sallies animate the action of the movie, much of which is spent in waiting in one room. Malko provides an interesting counterpoint to Newton’s insistence on rationality and proper procedure, and without her mediation, these values would appear to the audience as absurdly at a remove from the situation in which the film is grounded. Malko is ‘sensible’, but not in the way Newton is; she is an election official whose zeal for the democratic process is tempered by a lived experience of the numerous ways in which electoral politics fail on the ground, and even take on repressive aspects. She provides some of the best comedic moments in the film, such as when she offers a branch full of red ants to Loknath, played by Raghubir Yadav, to counter malarial infection, and goes on to talk of the red ant chutney made by the locals, making fun of Newton for being a stranger to indigenous practices such as these. This one scene again subtly underscores the self-awareness and criticality of the screenwriters; they know very well that they cannot convey the experience or subjectivity of the locals, and therefore, they do not try to. Herein lies what I believe should be commended about this film- its unassuming nature. Somehow, Newton manages to tread the thin line between melodramatic, heroic narrative, or its other extreme of sanctimonious ‘social realism’ by pointing repeatedly to its own failures and gaps in representation. These moments with Malko as a counterpoint to the ‘enlightened’, urban Newton serve to undercut bits in the movie that seem in slightly bad taste and correspond to the patronizing attitude I feared it would adopt- such as the montage of locals with their fingers held up, indicating how Newton has brought them into the benevolent fold of electoral politics.
Whether filmed as a melodramatic film, or in some kind of uncritical ‘realism’, the movie would have necessitated a ‘taking of sides’ in its specific context. By avoiding both while playing with elements of each, the film avoids a didactic stand, and instead lets the audience decide by sparsely laying out clues for them to pick up. That the school building in a burnt-down village is not simply a propitious choice is obvious; the knowledge of villages like Ambeli and Kotrapal ravaged in this manner is not necessary to understand the magnitude of such an act of violence. The presence of the Salwa Judum hovers menacingly over the characters in the movie, and the police force’s distinct discomfort when Newton asks for a culpable party also subtly implies the State’s complicity. Absences- of sound and image- gain importance as vehicles for meaning, or at least to open up a variety of possibilities repeatedly. When Newton and Malko are standing outside the school building reading graffiti, he asks her if the villagers had written on the walls, and she assents. The film audience, however, is not shown the text. Later, while Newton and Loknath converse in the foreground about Ravana being the first ‘Indian pilot’, the frame widens as the camera moves out, until the two characters are framed by a window and a bit of wall where fragments of graffiti in Devnagri, saying ‘Salwa Judum’, ‘kutte’, and ‘Hindu’ are slightly visible. Malko remains in the background, framed by the open door on the other end and a bit of forest. This use of depth of field serves a very important purpose when the entire film is constantly negotiating with the fear of censorship- how much and what can be shown on screen?
Newton is persistently engaging in a dialogue with these problems. There is no ‘one’ truth depicted anywhere in the film, or even a ‘solution’. Even when Newton and Aatma Singh adopt similarly patronizing attitudes towards the locals while explaining how voting functions, and subsequently get into an argument, they are interrupted by a village elder, who mildly tells them that he is the elected chief and therefore responsible for the villagers. The fact that Gondi in the movie is not glossed with subtitles adds even more to this scene. The majority of the cinema-going audience are put in the position of Aatma and Newton for a moment, and made aware of their own complicity in the functioning of a state mechanism where citizens are in such a predicament, and where the usual attitude adopted is the paternalistic one both Aatma and Newton take on in the scene. That the ‘village chief’ steps up to solve the almost childish squabble of the two men does not gesture at a Janatana Sarkar, perhaps, but at least creates a fissure in the dominant narrative where the Adivasi gains agency, and not just through the figure of one token Adivasi woman. This is an important break in the tradition of realism in Indian cinema as it exists. For me, it evoked and broke away from the unpleasant memory of the casting of Simi Garewal in blackface for Ray’s Aranyer Dinratri (1970). In Newton, there is no reference to the sexual exploitation of Adivasi women by security forces- or most recently, members of Operation Green Hunt- but there are subtle references to the forms this may adopt, the most benevolent of which is probably the police force’s demand for chicken curry (a source of some hilarity among the audience).
Understanding Newton as set within a specific language of ‘realism’ and a logic of pleasure within Hindi cinema may provide a clue to why it has generated a buzz at the box office despite its probing of rather uncomfortable questions. Perhaps the audience in the Kolkata theatre I went to recognized it as entering into the genre of realist or even parallel cinema, following in the footsteps of Ray and Ghatak even while interrogating their styles. Vasudevan reads Satyajit Ray’s importance in the construction of Indian nationhood as informed by “imagining the present as a distinct moment” separated from previous generical imaginaries. It may be interesting to consider that Foucault points out a similar tendency as he deconstructs Enlightenment when he talks of the ‘heroizing’ of the present. Putting these two arguments together for Newton presents the audience with an articulate, modern, ‘Enlightened’ protagonist who is grappling with the ideas of subjectivity and nationhood that are so contested at the moment. In what has become one of the most widely circulated readings of the movie, Wankhede proposes that Newton is the ‘new’ Dalit hero, an “independent rational thinking human being”, who is born into a caste society but is himself free of his caste identity. For me, the appeal of Newton as a protagonist lay not in his seemingly casteless being, which seemed a marker of his urban class privilege, but in the very way the narrative attacks his assumption of rationality. What redeems the movie from becoming preachy, or upholds the idea of the ‘good’ Dalit or the ‘good’ Adivasi with a peaceful faith in electoral politics is that Newton himself in the climactic moment is not ‘rational’. When Newton picks up the “desh ka bhaar” (the weight of the country) by pointing a rifle at the security forces, wild-eyed, he is very far from the Enlightenment hero who is framed with a blank blackboard behind him halfway through the movie. This rupture in the narrative, and the subsequent gratuitous violence of the security forces, when taken with the more darkly comic jabs made at the role of the police officers (their making Adivasi children sing as ‘punishment’, or the talk of how much surrenders are worth monetarily), makes an interesting space in the movie to consider larger questions. The ‘selling point’ of the film for me was that none of these questions are answered definitively, and the film audience leaves the hall with a slightly nonplussed buzz once the story arc has drawn to a close with the characters at a ‘safe’ remove from the forests.