- Newton makers have denied any influence
- Secret Ballot director has not yet made any objection
- Newton will represent India at the Oscars
It started, as so many films do, with an empty Microsoft Word document. It was 2013, and Amit Masurkar, director of then-unreleased indie comedy Sulemaani Keeda, stared at the screen where he, a man in search of a political film, had typed the words "Electronic Voting Machine", "Polling Booth" and "Presiding Officer." Those words led Masurkar, an aggressive and curious reader, to pore over disparate texts from the Election Commission website to the preamble of the Indian Constitution. "When I saw this news report from Chhattisgarh, I thought it was interesting, because here is a conflict between two systems: that of Democracy and Maoism/Communism. A fight between two ideologies directly connected with how people want to rule."
As Masurkar researched, he joined forces with his Sulemaani Keeda actor and dialogue writer, Mayank Tewari, a former reporter. "There was an agitation within Amit that really appealed to the idealistic reporter within me," says Tewari. "We went to Delhi, met journalists, surrendered-Naxals, policemen, paramilitary officers, Election Commission officers, and finally we went to Chhattisgarh, armed with information," says Masurkar.
As Masurkar and Tewari copiously took notes in Chhattisgarh, they met an Adivasi journalist called Mangal Kunjam, a young man fighting for the rights of his people. This person became the basis for Malko, Anjali Patil's character in Newton. "He took us to a lot of villages, we spoke to a lot of people at paramilitary camps, police officers," says Masurkar. "They undergo a lot of stress, impoverished families from other parts of India, and they are expected to deal with this without any psychological counselling." It is the level of researching in this film that sets it apart, believes the actor Pankaj Tripathi, who is excellent in Newton as Aatma Singh, an authoritative and world-weary paramilitary officer. "When I first read the script I wondered how these two boys could write a script this accurate," the actor laughs. "The premise - of Naxals, tribes, the voting process - this is a premise I actually know. They may have researched it but I have witnessed it, I remember seeing booths being captured when I was ten years old."
"While writing the story we started having insights one after the other," reveals Tewari. "We don't have to believe in cynicism, that was a major breakthrough. The other major breakthrough is that Newton is not a genius. The most attractive officer in the film knows all the answers, he's memorised the manual, but he lacks the courage." As the two writers crystallised the screenplay, they realised they shouldn't get too enamoured by their own work. "That is where the idea of "Imandaari ka ghamand" - "the arrogance of honesty" - comes from," Tewari says. "We had to tell ourselves to relax, because all we had done was write a decent story."
"Without Amit I could not even think of doing something like this, jaded as I am as a former reporter," says Tewari. "I think of myself as a bootlegger in 1920s America, forced to sell Coca Cola, but I keep booze ready for the passionate. And then we get drunk together, if you know what I mean."
When the producer Manish Mundra - who immediately came on board after Masurkar pitched the script to him during a car ride - called up leading man Rajkummar Rao for Newton, the actor was already eager. "Amit had shot the making of [Dibakar Banerjee's] Love Sex Aur Dhokha," Rao says, disclosing that he'd become very fond of Masurkar right then, during Rao's own breakthrough film. "When Manish told me about Newton I was happy that Amit would be directing it. And I genuinely liked the script. It spoke about something relevant, and something that is a new world for me. And Newton as a character was somebody so idealistic, with so much honestly and sincerity that I could relate to his passion. All he wanted to do was change a few things in his own world."
"While writing, the character was becoming an avatar of Vishnu," says Mayank. "It was like he could do no wrong and could right everything, like Aamir Khan's character in 3 Idiots. That was not what we wanted. We wanted somebody who was imandaar. That was it." Rao, one of our most thrilling everyman actors, was a perfect choice. "I wanted a different physical look here," says Rao. "I've played an idealistic character before, in Shahid. I wanted this one to be different. So I decided to give him the curly hair, and he blinks his eyes strangely. My whole motto was to be very sincere - toward the script and the character, and what Newton stands for. I wasn't thinking about anything else, just believing in his ideologies."
One of the film's trickiest achievements is that despite his naivete and stubborn adherence to the rules, Newton never comes across as foolish. "For this I'll give credit to Amit and Mayank," says Rao, "because there are times Newton raises his voice. If he has to pick up a gun, he will pick up a gun. He has a moment of rebellion with his father, he says no to the underage marriage... See, as an actor it is always exciting when the scenes are so different from one another. There is a scene where the electricity goes out and Newton has to go check if it has happened just in their house or the whole neighbourhood. These really mundane, day to day scenes really made the character very human."
"Kamaal ki script hai. The only thing I found when I first read it was that my role was a bit in a cliched zone," says Tripathi about Aatma Singh, the cynical foil to Newton's earnestness. "It was written a bit like a villain. I spoke to Amit about this and he took the changes on board. As an actor I like to humanise every character, there should be no black and white. My character has no personal enmity with Newton, have just met him at 5 in the morning. So I made him a bit more mild, a bit more human."
Rao and Tripathi have a terrific on-screen dynamic, and each of the two actors - whom I spoke with separately - spoke effusively about the other, saying that they put the scene first. "Pankaj is such a fine actor," says Rao. "With him, the only thing you think about is the scene. Not how will 'my performance,' 'my angles' look. You feed off each other and you improvise." "Like on a badminton court, acting is give and take," says Tripathi. "It only works well when both players are of the same level. Rajkummar is a very hard working actor, and goes into a lot of detailing, and I'm more impulsive. But as actors we give each other space and stay in the scene, stay present. The pitch should remain. Ras bana rahe."
It seems ironic to hear of this reverential give-and-take between the film's primary antagonists, but finding a character's tone - and, by extension, that of the film - is all about balance. Throughout the jungle scenes, Tripathi added jocular humour to his character, enough to worry Masurkar who wondered if Aatma Singh would still pose enough of a threat to Newton if he was this satirical and funny. In the last three days of the shooting, however, the unit shot Aatma Singh's first scene - in the police camp, early in the morning, where he offers Newton desi eggs and confronts him over breakfast - and this is where Tripathi shifted the character's tone. "I decided I'll just glare at him. My [National School of Drama] guru Baba Karanth used to say, 'through minimum create maximum.' So I didn't fall back on anything in that scene, no humour, nothing cinematic... I just stared and stared at Newton, and I think Aatma Singh is set up in that scene."
Newton, too, is set up by his silences. It is hard for a director and an actor to make a strongly credible character out of an observer who does not always express himself entirely, and Newton is a protagonist who spends an awful long time being quiet. "I loved his silences," smiles Rao. "There is such a volcano erupting inside him, and he's just quiet. The rules are being broken, things are not going as he wants them to, and you can see that he is bottling it all in. He should be screaming but he's just quiet..."
Where did the name come from?
"We were clear that the title needs to be interesting," says Masurkar. "It needs to generate curiosity. The working title was 'Election,' but I was on Facebook one day - looking at the 'People You May Know' tab - and there was a guy called Newton. So I pressed on his profile, and he was from a small town and had a very regular surname, like Newton Mishra or something. Yeh toh bahut interesting naam hai." Then, as the writers started reading about Isaac Newton (with Tewari even reading Newton's Principia Mathematica), the scientist began to affect the narrative. "Our hero is a purist, finds inspiration in chaos, is a little eccentric," says Masurkar. "The three acts of the film are represented by the three laws of motion. We started drawing inspiration, but we didn't want to be too clever about this." There we have it. Newton, an aware and relevant film questioning India's boast of democracy, continues to open our eyes. Good can even emerge from as unlikely a source as Facebook. All that matters is what we choose to look at.
(Raja Sen is a film critic, columnist and screenwriter. He is currently working on a children's book.)
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