Democracy in Rest and Motion
Indie Meme brings acclaimed export Newton to AFS Cinema
India's satirical Best Foreign Language film entry, Amit V. Masurkar's Newton is a dark comedy about an honesty-obsessed voting-booth worker attempting to conduct elections in contentious tribal and rebel hinterlands, fighting against all odds and occasionally against reason.
Masurkar's black comedy displays the positives but mostly the negatives in India's convoluted electoral system. It stars a stoic Rajkummar Rao (Shahid, Aligarh) as the title character, who's "arrogant in his honesty," as an elder notes at the beginning of the film. Sometimes cultural convention is the danger for Newton, which can run counter to his righteousness, which he uses often as a hammer.
The trick of the character, and the film, is conceding where heavy-handed moral superiority is situationally useful, and where it isn't.
"He's a bit like Don Quixote, somebody who has read all these books, rules and regulations, and the Constitution, and he's quite charged. He sees himself as a torchbearer of democracy, bringing it into the jungle," explains Masurkar. "He's extremely idealistic: It brings an element of naivete into his work."
Moreover, the director doesn't envision Newton as a hero, as "he has his own set of flaws." Rao's spot-on portrayal puts the character in situations where the viewer laughs – with a cringe – at his lack of common sense and situational awareness. The name "Newton" isn't accidental, of course, as it plays on Isaac Newton's theoretical analysis as a plotting foundation.
"He is very much a stickler for rules, but in the end, he ends up taking the law into his own hands to conduct the elections," says Masurkar.
"If you look at the script, it's according to the laws of motion. The first act is inertia, the second act is momentum, the third act is an equal and opposite reaction."
Controversy has followed the film after some viewers noted the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the 2001 Iranian film Secret Ballot, about a polling official, here a virtuous woman, that's taken around by a less-than-willing soldier in search of votes. While Masurkar's film does open up a history of Bollywood borrowing liberally from other works, Newton's tack lies less in the main character's arc.
In fact, the film's best characters are a hilarious wise-cracking pollster (Raghubir Yadav) and the group's liaison officer (Anjali Patil), both providing comic relief and darkly sobering texture against Newton's gnawing idealism.
The actual story of Newton, an overtly political film, is its solid international run. Streaming has equalized and flattened out the terrain for foreign films to enter new markets, as showcased with Netflix's deep investment in global markets.
However, here in Austin and around the country, theatre chains are showing more foreign-language films which not only cater to immigration influxes, but city locals with richer cinematic palettes.
"You're seeing people in India watching Hollywood films or Korean films," says Masurkar. "It's all opened up [via internet], and this is just a part of globalization, that in Austin, there is an audience for Indian films. I'm sure it's not just people of Indian origin coming to the theatre.
"If the film is good, it will definitely travel."
Indie Meme presents Newton Tue., Dec. 5, 7pm, at AFS Cinema. Director Amit Masurkar will be on hand for a postscreening Q&A. For tickets and more info, see www.indiememe.org.