‘Newton’ review — Rajkummar Rao delicately brilliant in excellent social satire
Naxalism and Elections — issues that are challenging to broach and equally sensitive politically — ‘Newton’ dares to address them and it does it exceedingly well
by Rutwij Nakhwa
Rajkummar Rao is the titular, run-of-the-mill, very middle-class government clerk who wears his unflinching idealism and honesty right on his sleeve. He lives close to the Maoist heartland in Chhattisgarh. Naxalite attacks covered on TV news and power outages are greeted with a nonchalance of habit as Newton digs into his election Presiding Officer guidebook. Although he is just a reserve and might not actually be called on, Newton prepares to discharge his duty with perfection — literally by the book.
There is a training workshop presided over by Sanjay Mishra’s character (in a delightful cameo) where Newton acts the over-eager, under-smart nerd who becomes the butt of jokes. He is visibly hurt, ridiculed for his earnestness — so much that he even complains. Mishra’s character tells him, “You know what your problem is? Not your honesty, but your pride for what is the expected bare minimum.”
This is the start of a journey of self-discovery both for Newton’s character as well as the viewer watching him.
The original presiding officer learns that the poll-booth is in the middle of a conflict-ridden jungle and instantaneously develops cold-feet, a very-recent marriage and kid, a heart-condition and a medical embargo from boarding a helicopter. Newton then gets his chance and flies in with two aides by his side — to dispense his duty impeccably, come what may.
But he is surrounded by bureaucrats and security forces, who have regularly been in-charge of the area. He may want to conduct his first election by the book, but everyone else — the bureaucrats, the top-cops, the security force and the media — has an agenda of their own.
Newton’s biggest hurdle is the domineering security in-charge for the region, Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) whose cynical apathy from years of serving in zones of conflict and corruption crashes head on with Newton’s lopsided righteousness and idealism. Singh, like Newton, has tremendous pride, in his case, for having borne the “burden of the Nation” (his firearm). He simply wants to be over with this big farce of an election without any harm coming to his men for it.
Among these conflicting world-views is that of Malko (Anjali Patil), a local who is part of the voting team. When asked by Newton if she too is a pessimist like the others around them, she stoically declares, “ I am an adivasi.” Her views and her world, like that of the local voters — the main dramatis personae of the process, have been far left behind by these many agents of progress and governance.
The self-styled ‘Newton’ (born Nutan Kumar) with his steely determination and uncompromising belief is easy to identify with. He often embodies and acts on the urge many of us feel — to do the right thing, to not cower or desert our ideals when it’s the most difficult to abide. But even his ostensibly enlightened view is myopic. Newton fights, bargains and pleads to finally get his way. But a single act of heroism, doesn’t make for any meaningful change.
The film beams with the skill that has gone into making and refining it. Almost every line of dialogue is layered with meaning and often hilarious, and was probably rewritten till perfection, but comes off as genuinely spontaneous — the stuff of real-life. ‘Newton’ leads you to introspect just as it is making you chuckle away and the great thing it achieves is to make you reconsider preconceived notions held so dear.
There is a harmony in how the film’s technique and narrative come together. The nuanced characterisation would have never come to life without the powerful performances that the entire cast keys in — especially Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathy and Anjali Patil. The music and background score lend credibility to the subtle but frequent tonal shifts.
Director Amit Masurkar often leaves his titular character isolated, centred in large frames that box him in contemplative space. That space is as much for us as him. One comes out of watching the film with a slightly ruffled conscience and looking at life itself a little differently.