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Newton is a peek into the fascinating world of an Indian general election and the processes and ideologies that govern it. But Newton also works on so many other levels - as a dark comedy, as the portrait of a naive man, and as the story of a land ravaged by war, where the biggest losers are the common people

He has been named Nutan Kumar by his parents. He hates the name, changes it willfully to Newton, defying the laws of tradition and family, especially a quasiauthoritarian father, who seems helpless in the face of his stoic, dogged, unmovable, young, educated son. He refuses to get married to a girl who left studies after class nine preparing to be a homemaker under her insistent and doting parents, despite the fact she makes wonderful ‘pakoras’ and is coming with a huge dowry. “She should at least be a graduate,” he says. “Nutan,” his mother scolds him affectionately. “Newton,” he corrects her yet again, as obstinate like a steady, unwavering, stick-in-the-mud.

Directed by Amit Masurkar, written by an unknown experimental writer, Rohit Tiwari, with fabulous cinematography shot in limited locations in the forests of Chhattisgarh by Swapnil S Sonawane, the black comedy, Newton, is India’s official entry in the foreign language category at the prestigious Oscars this year, the 90th Academy Awards. It has earlier won laurels at the Hong Kong and Berlin Film Festival. Running into packed houses all over India, this low profile, low budget, no glamour or glitz movie, has the added bonus of lovely songs by the veteran genius Raghubir Yadav and Amit Trivedi. Apart from Yadav, who yet again excels as a ‘lowly government clerk plus self-styled author’ and a diabetic who cannot control his ‘bodily motions’ in the forest inhabited by Maoists, and is obsessed with the idea of learning English by watching English movies on his dilapidated mobile, the film stars Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, in an excellent rendition of an ironical paramilitary officer, and dusky Anjali Patil as a local tribal woman, who knows the zigzags of the dense forest like the back of her hand, now working as a teacher.

However, the actor who steals the show and is the protagonist of this incredible film is young Rao. Dogmatically honest and ethical, and outside all ideologies, as if his DNA has been trained in an immaculate conception, his eyes, sharp and steady, his face clenched like a fist fighting against all odds, this wiry government official in the lower rungs, chooses to enter a dangerous terrain and accept a difficult job, in a context when the most experienced of his senior colleagues choose to slink away. He agrees promptly, as a ‘reserved’ official on duty, to become the returning officer in a remote outpost, in the interiors of the forest dominated by armed Maoists, to celebrate the enactment of elections as a sign of India -- the largest democracy.

And, thereby, begins a rollercoaster ride of both a farce and a nightmare, as the cracked mirror of Indian democracy comes into full play in an Adivasi twilight zone, trapped in the dense shadows of a dark continent, as backward and marginalized as it could be, as poor and unaware as it could be, as helpless and exploited as they could be, without fundamental rights or constitutional protection, outside the spectacle of globalization or media glare, beyond the gaze of Delhi, the Indian State, the mainstream, the media, or the civil society.

Eerie interiors of Abhujmarh, that is the incomprehensible and unexplored inner lanes of the forests of Dandakaranya, where even the Britishers would not dare to enter, and where a para-military unit is camped, protected by guns and barbed wires, on this or that side of a ‘shifting LoC’, as a soldier comments cryptically, against an invisible guerrilla army of Maoists, waging an infinite war against the Indian State. Here, the forces do not even trust the children playing on top of a tree, suspecting them to be ‘advanced informers’ in an area where the occasional tribal disappears into the woods as quickly, as the terrain becomes tricky and sublime, entering into vast spaces of eternal solitude. Except that fear lurks, like schizophrenia, hanging like dying and death, in the still air.

Burnt houses (who burnt them, the forces or the Maoists?), an empty one-room school, graffiti on the walls sounding out revenge against the ‘agents of death, destruction and injustice’, tribal villages with their chicken floating in the air, humble, poverty-stricken, thatched homes outside all the paradigm shifts of modernity or development, resurrecting their daily simplicity and an honest, hard-working life in the forest, they are treated like cattle by the gun-toting forces. Hurriedly dragged

and pushed into voting by soldiers, slapped for a little delay, whereby the ‘returning officer’ waits endlessly for the first voter in his makeshift ‘polling booth’, the film marks the idealism of a naïve young officer, who continues to believe that every vote cast is a measure of his honest and ethical duty in the exercise of democracy.

A top army officer arrives with a foreign lady journalist, who promptly declares how Indian democracy is functioning even in the most adverse circumstances, unaware as she is, that the whole affair is stagemanaged. The Adivasis do not even know who are the candidates, what are they poll symbols, what is their manifesto, how to press the EVM button. They really care two hoots. In their broken eyes and weatherbeaten faces, the entire farce plays out like a theatre of the absurd – they have seen it year after year and they know that nothing will change for them, even as the tribal teacher categorically states that what can they do really, they are trapped between the rock and the deep sea.

In this pessimistic, dead-end scenario, Newton sees through the game but is helpless. He can’t defy the laws of gravity. It is the army officer who is finally playing a multiple-double speak – he too is ironically trapped, knowing fully well that this is all but a farce. He is only doing his duty. He tells Newton, “You are Newton. Don’t try to become Einstein,” even as he bullies and cajoles him into play. Indeed, he has to follow his officer’s command, while he too cares two hoots -which tribal presses which button. All he wants is to go back to his ‘safe camp’ along with his troops before the sun sets because that is the time ‘they’ might attack, and have his early morning shot of ‘medicine’ with boiled eggs.

The greatness of this brilliant movie is that it takes no sides. Its neutrality itself is the silver lining which carries it through the difficult complexity of the status quo, idealism and guerrilla resistance. All it posits, through the film, are two things: that idealism is still alive, even if it is defeated, in a democracy which can be as failed, farcical and fragmented, as the stage-managed electoral verdict in a remote Adivasi land.

Indeed, the last shot is significant. As the teacher comes to visit him, he fishes out a framed certificate from his drawer, in his musty government office. It is a certificate lauding him for his punctuality.

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