At every major film festival, for the last five years or so — be it Cannes, Venice or Berlin — there has been at least one Indian film that has managed to create ripples. Last year, it was Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. A year before that, it was Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. And this year, it can only be Amit Masurkar’s sublime sophomore feature, Newton.
The titular character, played by Rajkummar Rao, is a highly-principled idealist who takes on the job of a volunteer election worker in the troubled jungles of Chattisgarh. He has to ensure that the village election is carried out properly, but once he arrives, he realises that where there is corruption and disorder, there is no way.
Complementing Rao in the film are Anjali Patil, portraying a local helper, Pankaj Tripathi, the quasiantagonist and Raghubir Yadav, playing a hilarious polling official. Newton had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was playing in the Forum sidebar. Eventually, Newton went on to win the Cicae Art Cinema Award, awarded by an independent jury at the festival.
It is the morning after the premiere and the film’s dialogue and characters are still fresh in my memory. When I arrive at the venue, I see Rao animatedly talking to someone on the phone and pacing the lounge. Patil is taking pictures on her digital camera. I don’t think I’ve ever come to an interview like this, with the actors doing what they are doing. I like it.
It takes a while before we’re all sat down and I start off by asking about the themes of the film and why, even 70 years after modern India’s creation, we are still plagued by pretty much the same problems. Rao starts off by saying, “It’s just there. And I hope that somebody does something. We will probably have to start by doing our bit. I think there has to be a change in the society and the system for a better world. I hope I know the formula, to make this place a better world.” He then asks Patil on her views. “Education is the only way one can deal with it. Education at every level. Basic education. I feel that it starts from the kids. If I had some basic education, I would be a better person.” Rao nods and adds that “We have to be socially more responsible. We have to be more compassionate, towards people, towards life. And it will come only through education. And that doesn’t mean getting good marks in exams.”
The film’s title is unusual for an Indian film and there’s a story behind that. The actual name of the protagonist is Nutan, but because he gets teased about it, he changes it to Newton. I ask both the actors whether they also had to change anything about themselves when they entered the industry, in order to be accepted. Rao thinks hard. “That’s deep. You have to. I guess when I started acting and I came to the industry, for me the only thing was that I have to work. But the game is much bigger. There is so much more attached. You have to have a PR machine, you have to be seen, which personally I am not a big fan of, but I guess that’s how the system works. That’s something I’m still adapting to… I won’t say I’m a pro at it.”
Patil has a more lax approach to filmmaking and life in general. “I’m a quitter. I quit. I’m not really driven. I’m a very laidback person. I rather enjoy things in an artistic way. And I just like to live the life of an artist. To evolve every day. If being in films changes me from my basic nature, then it’s kind of hectic. Nobody wants to be perceived as someone else. It’s tiring. I tried to do it for a time when I just entered the business and then I realised this is not me. And I went back into the mountains and I did things I wanted to do and realised, maybe I am not going to get into the game. I will just enjoy whatever work comes to me and I’ll keep on doing it.” When Patil says “mountains”, it’s not meant figuratively. When the filmmakers were casting for her role, she was in a Buddhist monastery and her phone was switched off. She likes to “vanish”, as she puts it. “For me it’s my lifestyle. I see my film as an extension of my life.”
Even though Newton is not at all a preachy film, it’s a political satire and it will have its detractors. In its current form, the one that was screened at the festival, it’s hard to imagine it being passed by the censors. I ask the actors whether they were ever apprehensive whilst making the film. “I’ve done so many of them now,” replies Rao instantly. “Shahid and now, Omertà, Hansal Mehta’s next film, which is going to be very explosive. I think I have become fearless now. Also, as an actor you can’t really predict what is going to happen with a film. You fall in love with the script, with the character. And if people want to protest, that’s their job. We’ll do our job. We can’t be fearful of doing things. We have to have a voice.”
As we are wrapping up the interview, Tripathi walks into the lounge. Their co-star is elated, as he’s just come from a packed screening of Newton. 500 people, mostly Germans, laughing at every single joke. I finally ask whether it’s easy to see yourself on the big screen? Not really, says Rao. Uncomfortable, says Patil. And Tripathi? “Kammiyan dikhti hain. Yahan garbar hui, yeh ghalat kiya hai (You see flaws. This was a screw-up, this went wrong.)”
Mistakes? I didn’t see any. Newton and all the actors in it are tremendous.