By Gary M. Kramer.
Newton is co-writer/director Amit Masurkar’s nifty film about title character (a charismatic Rajkummar Rao), an election official who is sent to the jungle in central India to monitor a particular voting district. He is warned about Maoist guerrillas operating in the area, as well as explosives. But Newton is there to make sure there is a free and fair election; he is an upright (and on time) clerk who wants to make a difference. Of course, his by-the-book approach, which includes having Malko (Anjali Patil), a voting official, by his side, upsets the military chief, Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathy). The conflicts that arise between the voting clerks, the military, and the villagers, form the basis of this comedy-drama the culminates in an intense stand off. Masurkar spoke with Film International about making Newton, which had its North American premiere at this years’ Tribeca Film Festival.
How did you come up with the story for this film? Elections, Newton suggests, are big deals in India, costing nearly $5 billion dollars! Are they important, and effective or more for show?
Elections are important and they happen 99% of them are fair. But the film is not about an election but about the machine of democracy, versus democratic principles and ideas, which are more humanistic. It’s talking about that gap, which is felt all across the world. Democratic machinery has always been changing. There was a time when only men could vote. Now it’s open to [everyone]. Democratic machinery is always evolving according to the situation of the time. But there are all these lofty ideas, and the gap is huge, so I wanted to do something about that gap. I wanted to set up a film on the day of the elections when everybody thought they were part of a system helping to choose their own destiny. They feel that they are participating. People do feel they are participating in this democracy process in some places, but it is a façade. I wanted to set it in an area where there was natural conflict in the form of an entity that doesn’t want elections to happen. It could have been anywhere, but I chose the heart of the country, and Maoists, who don’t want independence; they want to have a state like Maoist China and a cultural revolution. It’s a far-fetched dream, because they’ve been fighting like this for more than 20 years. It will never work out. They are getting funded from mining lobbies. It’s all quite complex scenario, and I wanted to capture that in a film.
How did you create the title character? He has considerable integrity, and wants to do his duty. He is almost inflexible, but very charismatic. What decisions did you make about how he would react to the situations he found himself?
I’ve come across a lot of government officials, and they do what is right, and believe in Karma. Those characters interest me because they operate in a very difficult system. With respect to Newton, a lot of young people don’t want to work with the government. They want to work in IT or do something more glamorous. But it’s interesting when young people have the opportunity to do this kind of job, so to have this young charismatic clerk, who isn’t very bright, but has his ideals and his holier-than-thou approach. He is so sure about his integrity he comes off as slightly pompous. The actor worked hard on the character. He decided to curl his hair, and that made him look like a man-child. We based him a bit on Isaac Newton. Newton had these quirks; he lacks common sense. Newton was also someone who tried to find order in chaos, and was obsessed with purity, and honesty. He’s inflexible but he knows he’s doing something right. Newton has some cockiness. He thinks he’s street smart, but he’s not.
Newton talks about “wanting to make a difference.” Do you think he is naïve? Can individuals effect change in the big system?
I don’t think he’s being naïve. What he believes is something he’s reiterating from his mentor says, which is to do your job and not think about what others are doing. Because if everyone does their job in an honest way, only then can you bring about change. You see individuals bringing about change all over the world. I am not a pessimist. Neither is Newton. It’s very easy to make a pessimistic film. We looked at every possible epilogue. We wanted to show how Newton talks about democracy, but ends up picking up a gun, and how his individual human nature becomes apparent in its most naked form, which is anger.
There are several discussions of rules in the film. When is it OK to be a rule-breaker? I have a friend who says she follows the rules but questions authority.
I agree with your friend. You have your own personal ideas. If rules go against them — because laws keep changing… There were laws of segregation. They were wrong. People fought against them. You have to keep fighting against laws that are unjust. Every human has a moral sense of right and wrong. It’s part of your instinct, and you always know when you are doing something that is harming someone.
What can you say about the film’s ideas of injustice? There’s a suggestions that everyone would be fine if they all had TVs.
That’s the truth! Everything is based on research. In those [rural] areas, they are distributing free satellite dishes. They want people in small villages in India to have them. In other countries there might be different products for people, but in India, the same products in smaller, affordable versions. It’s very aspirational. They don’t want to buy a product that is “lesser.” People in a small town will save up money to buy Nike shoes. Marketing people have discovered this and the moment when you have to homogenize because India is so different. For example, in some areas they had their own local vegetables. But now everyone is eating tomatoes and wheat and potatoes. So food habits are changing because of cooking shows. People learn Hindi by watching television. They learn how to behave in urban areas, they learn how to dress and get out of their shells.
There is an interesting episode with Newton being set up for marriage. Can you talk about this episode, and the messages you wanted to convey to Indians and abroad?
What is progressive and what is regressive, these things are changing. A generation ago something was progressive, something is not. Maybe years from now the idea of marriage will be regressive. It keeps changing. In India right now, if you look at it from a Western perspective, Newton is 25 years old and living with his parents. But in an Indian context, this is normal. Even a college professor would do it. He makes a progressive act when he refuses to marry the potential bride. The idea of the arranged marriage isn’t, but his not wanting to get into the alliance is. I think that the marriage scene is a rite of passage. He’s 25 and unmarried, and a government officer. He needs to find a good wife. I also thought it was interesting to show this because in his own life, he doesn’t really have a vote. He had to fight for his vote. For someone talking about democracy, he’s playing into his parents’ wishes.
How has the film been received in India?
It is being released in July. I think it will provoke conversation. There’s nothing in the film that will upset anyone. In India, we have tradition of making anti-establishment films. Because it’s a comedy, and the other films were serious and art-house, we’ll have a larger audience. We want people to see it, and get involved with it, so it will be a bigger release.
This is your second feature. How did this film help you grow?
I’d never directed actors before I made my first feature. I made my first film on a low budget. I never expected it to get released. We were just going with the flow. We had no money for post-production. It was an experiment. It was good to give me the confidence to direct actors and focus on bigger ideas. Before that, I was worried about how I’d communicate with an actor, or a cinematographer, the very basics of filmmaking. I hadn’t been to film school. I was training myself to be a writer. I was more focused on the story aspect, so I wanted to make sure I can hold my own on the set and direct. That was a big step for me. For the second film I made, Newton, I wanted to pick an idea that was more ambitious. I wanted to do something in the jungle. I was always fascinated by Aguirre, the Wrath of God. We actually shot Newton in the conflict area, so we had to be very careful not to ruffle the feathers of the government or the Maoists. We had to be discreet and pretend we were a Bollywood crew. We couldn’t use too many lights. So we had issues with generators, which made noise, and we were shooting with sync sound, and we set the film between 9 am and 3 pm, so we shoot at certain time of the day. There were a lot of constraints for shooting. It rained in the middle of March, so we couldn’t shoot because everything was wet. And flowers started appearing in the concrete. We were worried about how it would turn out.