Newton : Movie Review
4 stars out of 5 (Excellent)
Writers : Amit V. Masurkar , Mayank Tewari
Director : Amit V. Masurkar
Producer : Manish Mundra (Dhrishyam Films), Aanand L Rai
Hindi (English subtitles available) , 2017
There's a scene towards the end in 'Newton' when a girl arrives to meet a boy in his office. They've known and worked with each other for just one day in the past. The boy had done for the girl's people what no one had ever done for them before. The boy likely thought he would never meet her again, and probably he hasn't thought much about her till now. She is not fair nor is she of the drop-dead gorgeous type, which partly explains why he isn't exactly thrilled to bits on seeing her again. But her face has its own attraction and her mind is beautiful. We see that the boy is indeed pleasantly suprised to meet her again. He tells her that the lunch break is just five minutes away, and they can repair to the canteen as soon as that moment arrives. She isn't surprised at his by-the-book nay anal-retentive ways, having known what happened in the past, and smilingly agrees to wait. He stabs away at his keyboard, looking at the computer screen, having the presence of mind to break the silence in the middle by telling her that he's glad she's come to meet him. He works some more... and the scene ends there.
That's it. We are never shown what happens next. You do not know for sure what ensues - whether she stabbed him, whether he had a hysterical fit, whether they actually had coffee thereafter, whether they ended up making wild love.
My dear pal Rajeev who watched the movie with me, found this sequence particularly unfulfilling. He did not like the movie overall, deploring its tendency to "linger" on characters, and this scene particularly left a valent frustration in his mind. The scene moved slowly, he reported, and when it should have cut to them having coffee later, it didn't, choosing instead to loiter around, allegedly.
'Newton' has some trappings that are different from your "usual" non-mainstream Hindi movie. There's a newly emerged industry big-shot Aanand L Rai who flexes his muscle in the production credits. The poster shows the film's hero wearing a military helmet, and sporting a wide-eyed slightly worried expression as multiple fingers point at him - the promo designers and the film's parents gaily thought it might trigger audience memories of a similar poster of 'PK ' which grossed Rs.854 crore ($ 142 million).
The Newton of Indian Boondocks - born Mr.Nutan Kumar and who has gloriously renamed himself after the Angrezi Chokhra - is a young government clerk who is sent as the presiding officer to conduct elections for tribal people in the jungles of Chattisgarh in central-east India. Their target population for polling is about 80 people - never mind because the Indian Government - we speak without sarcasm here - is determined to display its democracy in every nook and cranny. Another bright youngster pulls out in fright because the area bristles with the risk of armed assault by Naxals (extremist outfits from the disgruntled local populace which has been ignored by the politicians) and Newton is helicoptered in instead of him.
Little does Newton (Rajkummar Rao) suspect how the law of gravity from certain Indian circles, will drag him to the ground and rub his nose in the native dirt. His team of three other people, including a middle aged gent (essayed by Raghubir Yadav) and a young female local facilitator Malko (played by Anjali Patil) is, right at the start, cunningly requested to not hold the polling at all and instead secretly fix the results from the base camp itself. He will have none of it but in a woebegone crumbling building in the centre of a jungle where they eventually reach, a whole caboodle of subversive efforts scuttle his plans to hold a squeaky-clean election. Leading their "protection" team of more than a dozen Commandos guiding them to the jungle and back over the course of a single day from 5 am to 5 pm, is the craftily strong forty year old assistant commandant Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). Who needs conniving politicians or Naxals for that matter when you have a wicked beauty like Aatma Singh to take care of India ?
It is a rookie mistake to regard 'Newton' predominantly as a socio-political satire. Its aesthetic triumphs are as exquiste as its luscious societal sniping. This is a movie that is unafraid to breathe in the languid moment (the attention-deficit folks can go to their therapist for treatment). Lazing in the boondocks, where time stretches to infinity, is a special art and in this respect, this Indian pikchar elegantly wallows in the same milieu as far-away pics like Ostre Sledovane Vlaky (both were sent to that largely useless committee called the Oscars).
Wide-angle unhurried cinematography by Swapnil S. Sonawane from the get-go, graces our eye. If you thought there is a nice visual symmetry between this and 2015's 'Masaan', that's not co-incidental because the artistic co-parent is the same - the audacious Dhrishyam Films headed by Manish Mundra. An early shot shows one of the half of the wide screen filled by the white cement exterior of Newton's home, while the other half shows him reflecting on the terrace. A static capture of a bus scene where the hero's father excoriates him for not marrying a sixteen year-old girl, is remarkable not only for the rage-filled fireworks by the elderly man but also for the roomy canvas (man, that's a big bus!). The lens gazes from inside the small one-room ramshackle school where the polling is being held, and there are three large windows neatly framed on the capture - a local young lady thinks in the foreground while the men squabble far in the background - an excellent synencdoche. While the commendably restrained background score hums its calculative mood, a superb shot gently zooms onto the silently scheming commando seated on a stump in a clearing amidst the jungle - a commercial hack despite all his crude knack at making millions would simply not have the caliber to conceive a simple signature like that.
The script by Masurkar and Tewari throws its darts with zingy, loopy humour. A government senior at an early stage illuminates Newton with a gloriously revisionist perspective by dismissing the fifteenth century iconic English scientist's contributions in gravity and optics, and proclaiming that what Issac Newton really accomoplished was to tear down social barriers by demonstrating that both India's richest man and an ordinary labourer when dropped down a cliff will fall to the ground with the same bone-crunching velocity. Our Indian Newton's re-education continues in the jungles where he gives the wrong answer when Singh asks him what is two plus two divided by two ( Moral of the story : Do Not teach mathematics to a Group A Gazetted Officer of the Central Armed Police Forces of India - they know more than you do). When the hero asks a young local lady Malko (Anjali Patil) whether she is an optimist or a pessimist, her answer is a Newtonian revelation of what it means to live in the Indian hinterlands.
The India of 2017 is a gaint waking up from centuries of slumber, aiming not just to reprise its glory from millenia ago, but also to break new ground as it searches for Herculean game-changers who will figure ways to best leverage the billion strong populace. Young men like Newton are desperately needed, but a qualified tragedy is that a fastidious rule-keeper like him is stuck in a lowly positon (it is revealed he could not pass the much more powerful IAS examinations). Even if he did become an IAS officer he will be under the thumb of a moron politician. From what we see of Newton, sadly, it is highly unlikely he will have the street-smarts to become a politician - the one category which can most decisively change the country. It is of some solace however that folks like him steady the lower rungs of bureacracy , otherwise we would have an even more useless government. In the police arm, we see a specimen like Aatma Singh - very street-smart and powerful but with a highly corrupted soul. He laments that the government is too lazy to give his unit night-vision equipment which will reduce the casualties wreaked by the terrorists. But Singh's ego, sense of convenience and probably an unwitnessed word from above, will eventually persuade him to trash the elections, thus scuppering the very developmental process that reduces the creation of terrorists. You don't have to be a Newton to perceive this regretful state of affairs, but it is important to note that these remain the central throbbing ironies of these Indian jungles, whether rural or urban.
The pic's brightest thespian shaft slides in not from the hero's admittedly solid role but through Pankaj Tripathi's dangerously avuncular act as the afore-mentioned assistant commandant Aatma Singh. He essayed an outrightly malignant, perpetually angry rural gangster in 'Gangs of Wasseypur' and a benign laid-back railway clerk in 'Masaan' - here he calibrates his temperament at a beguilingly exact point inbetween. Tripathi nails subtle acting nuances that would struggle to naturally occur to lesser actors. A young lady declines wearing a bullet-proof jacket saying that she doesn't need as she is a native and that wearing it will only increase her risk - Newton on hearing this also declines his jacket but agrees after Tripathi's character counsels him - "No, please keep it on, you are not a native". That line would lose its value if uttered boldly but Tripathi mouths it gently and dryly, folding both sense and humour into that line. He fabulously trolls Newton throughout, patronizing him from the mildest to the most outrageous levels, and when an American lady journalist asks him whether the government support to these police officers is adequate, there is a delicacy of emotions in Tripathi's seemingly simple delivery. "It is less ", he simply starts and just in that one line and in his composed but slightly tense and awkward face we witness multiple things - a hesitancy to open up about their plight, halting English, shyness before a white lady foreigner, all eventually gently overtaken by a brave decision to speak out on behalf of his vulnerable professional brethren.
Few young actors in modern India have rustled up the formidable acting CV that Rajkummar Rao has in the last decade. Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Shaitan, Gangs of Wasseypur II , Shahid, Aligarh, Trapped and now this - his straight arrow brilliance here as the self-christened title character, a young man of unshakeable integrity marooned from birth in highly corrupted badlands, is always engaging, enlivened by his boyscout-like earnestness and bursts of righteous rage. Masurkar is excellent in channeling his associate actors' roster. Anjali Patil as Malko may not sport rosy complexion, but there is the pristine colour of a solid temperament in the strongly beautiful lines of her visage, wryly aware of the system turned against her rural people, and lighting up wonderfully when she smiles. Raghubir Yadav, dropsied face and belly to twice his size from his 'Meenaxi' mien thirteen years ago, was almost unrecognizable to me, but brings that same ol' delicious flavour we have known from him - of a small-built, seemingly innocuous man of street-wary face and droll speech. Bonuses lurk - a visiting top cop (a solid Danish Husain) is a sly rascal, flirting with a middle-aged American journalist and making very cultured trans-national references as to how a Al Pacino Broadway play 'Chinese Coffee' related to him.
Only one flaw in the film mars an otherwise flawless orchestration by Masurkar. When villagers are manhandled by the guardian commandos, the background score, in a bid to achieve languid satire, pulls some truly lousy singing from the mediocre song 'Panchi Ud Gaya' - that one desi inflection co-composed by unnecessary additional artistes is a poor attempt in what is otherwise a superbly restrained Western score by Benedict Taylor (cf. Kahshap's 'Ugly'). What really is it with these otherwise excellent directors which makes them paranoid about a completely international score and pushes them to shove in ill-conceived domestic touches ?
Circling back to what Rajeev disliked at the end, I told him what I liked in the epilogue - that it captured real-time flavour, that it was unafraid to spend time inside awkward moments, and that open endings are not necessarily scatalogical jokes. I do not mean to convey that Rajeev is indifferent to art and that I am an sophisticated aesthete. But I did think a lot of people would react to the movie as Rajeev did, thereby sinking it at the box office. 'Newton', however, made on a budget of Rs.9 crores ($ 1.5 million ) went on to gross Rs.32 crores. The people of India never cease to amaze you.
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