Director: Amit Masurkar
Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Raghubir Yadav, Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil, Sanjai Mishra
A young government clerk becomes the presiding officer of the voting process on Election Day in a dangerous naxal-infested jungle area of Chhattisgarh. He is a newbie, and understandably excited about this responsibility. Never mind that he, along with his small team, will be dispatched by helicopter to record a princely total of 76 votes from two remote villages. They will have military protection. They will wear bulletproof vests. Nobody really expects them to do this hazardous job. Proxy signatures are fine – no point actually sitting through the lectures. But this chap wants all of those 76 voters. He is determined not because he is fresh and keen to impress, but because he is who he is.
Perhaps the biggest victory of Amit Masurkar's Newton is the fact that its stubbornly honest and eponymous protagonist (Rajkummar Rao) feels unreal. Like a curious misfit: the types that prompt onlookers to incredulously ask if he is new ("naye ho kya?") or drunk ("peekay ho kya?"). In this sense, he is a natural descendent of Rajkumar Hirani's wide-eyed alien, PK – an anomaly that has accidentally been dropped into our contradictory planet from the stars above. This is evident from Newton's interactions with the people around him. From his jaded team members (a rakishly excellent Raghubir Yadav; finally rises above his horrific B-movie spree) to the cynical security chief (the incomparable Pankaj Tripathi), everyone at some point goes from bemused to exasperated with his procedural-junkie ways. He's some sample.
Basically, Newton Kumar is an annoying person. The class-monitor, complain-to-principal brand of annoying. And Masurkar's superbly acted film gradually makes us realize that this country's greatest tragedy is that we find someone like him so annoying.
In fact, like PK, Newton too has an unvoluntary "eye" tic of sorts; his blinks are forceful and sleep-deprived, as if he were alertly trying to process the vagaries of this world every time he opens them. Except, he isn't an inventive narrative device. He is a mirror, yes, but one that is capable of breaking by reflecting the blinding inadequacies of a broken system. He is real, human to a fault, and has polished the apple that fell on his head and offered it to many, many teachers.
Basically, Newton Kumar – who has intellectually rechristened himself after disowning his effeminate original name, Nutan – is an annoying person. The class-monitor, complain-to-principal brand of annoying. And Masurkar's superbly acted film gradually makes us realize that this country's greatest tragedy is that we find someone like him so annoying.
Honesty is a virtue equally bashed and celebrated today, when it should simply be accepted. And what makes Newton such an interesting everyman is that he is aware of this, and wears his ethicality as a badge. He wouldn't mind getting an award for it. Early on, during a workshop on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections, a senior trainer (Sanjai Mishra) accurately dissects this conscious sincerity of Newton. "Your problem is that you are proud of your honesty," the older man tells Newton. In a way, he is somewhat equating Newton to the nation he occupies – proudly and loudly labeling itself the "largest democracy in the world" when it is merely doing its job. Duty is misconstrued as choice. Both character and country come under fire through Masurkar's restrained vision.
Though there is nothing connecting this thematically to Amit Masurkar's barefooted slacker-comedy "Versova" debut (Sulemaani Keeda), Newton Kumar – much like the director, who has written commercially soul-crushing titles like Murder 3 – is made to feel like a righteous indie stuck in an atmosphere full of tired mainstream temperaments. They probably mock Newton behind his back, but remain wary of his inherent basicness. There were times I wanted to take Newton to the side and ask him who his mentors have been. How has he turned out this way? How has he maintained his principles? Is it even possible? What is his agenda? The more difficult he is to fathom, the more successful his story becomes.
The only time the film decides to become obvious about its "message" is when the media materializes to report on the process. It is a powerful scene, aided by the contrast of a lilting acoustic song that makes it seem like the images (and image-building) are playing in front of Newton in slow motion.
Not every action in the film is met with an instant reaction – and there's a beauty to the fact that it paints such a broad, uncomplicated picture merely through the happenings of a single day, through a bunch of people wryly putting the "demo" in democracy. The film, unlike its "hero," isn't showy about this idealism. It invests into the mundaneness of its situation instead – fashioning some lovely idle banter (especially Yadav and his writer-ly anecdotes) and reluctant chemistry between Newton and these middle-of-nowhere faces.
I can't get enough of Pankaj Tripathi (as supervising officer Aatma Singh) and Rajkummar Rao in the same frame. Together they have owned 2017 with their craft, much of which is visible here in their amusing battle of worldviews. We are cinematically conditioned to expect one of them to affect the other, or perhaps Tripathi to grudgingly admire the young upstart, but every character is too self-made to embrace conventional storytelling patterns. The film also quietly invests into the region's politics; the troubled locals soon sound like forcibly herded pawns torn between the communist rebels and military forces. They speak, complain and comment in a "documentary" manner. When asked if she is a pessimist like her male colleagues, Malko (Anjali Patil; fiercely dignified), a local well aware of their mission's futility, simply replies that she is an Adivasi.
As should be the case with a story revolving around an empty election center, there are many scenes in which boredom becomes a character. It even gets a soundtrack of sorts – with many shots of Newton's restless face while we hear cards being shuffled, books being read, chuckles of lazy soldiers in the background, stifled yawns and Singh's sardonic commentary on Newton's oddness ("Dekho, he is being all friendly," he suspiciously mutters at one point, when politely waved to from a distance). All this makes for a surprisingly watchable and socially subconscious character portrait.
Ironically, the only time the film decides to become obvious about its "message" is when the media materializes to report on the process. It is a powerful scene, aided by the contrast of a lilting acoustic song that makes it seem like the images (and image-building) are playing in front of Newton in slow motion. It is both a circus and a movie, and Newton – as we all know by now – isn't very fond of entertainment. His functionality is disturbed. Rao's eyes here bear the muted shock of a child discovering that Santa Claus isn't just fake but also someone who gets paid for cradling children in festive malls.
It's a testament to Rao's sober performance that in spite of his character's blatant underdog-ness, he remains difficult to like. He could have easily bastardized Newton into the village-idiot-simpleton caricature in order to earn our sympathy, but the film remains rooted to its interludes instead.
It's a damning measure of our times that Newton begins to feel more like a villain by the end. He isn't even equipped with a dramatic genre that might allow him to go around protesting, beating his chest, lighting candles or Rang-de-Basanti-ing a corrupt minister. But he has to come close. He has to effect change. Masurkar's brilliantly resigned film, however, keeps reminding him that he is not a film. "Rome cannot be built in a day," he is later told, cautiously, by a colleague closer to his age. Loosen up, we feel like telling him – because this will never be Rome. And you – we – will always be Nutan.