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Newton’s Last Discovery

Bollywood’s dark hit comedy features a bureaucrat lost in India’s political jungles.

Rajkummar Rao stars as the title character in "Newton." (Courtesy Drishyam Films)
Rajkummar Rao stars as the title character in "Newton." (Courtesy Drishyam Films)

This year, India sent a war movie to the Academy Awards, though the prize jury may not have realized it.

On its surface, the small-budget sleeper hit Newton is a wry, tightly wound comedy about the absurdities of Indian democracy. It may seem chiefly notable for breaking out of the shallow, conservative mold of mainstream Indian cinema. But its odd-man-out story — about a government clerk struggling to conduct an election deep in the heart of a central Indian jungle — doesn’t flinch from exposing the costs of India’s long counterinsurgency against its ongoing 50-year-old Maoist rebellion.

Newton was a good choice for the Oscars’s foreign-language film category: It should speak to audiences in democracies everywhere that are experiencing crises of self-belief. But it is also a bold choice for the Film Federation of India to send abroad — particularly at a moment when the mood of the nation, encouraged by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, tends toward thin-skinned nationalist sentimentality.

One of the speculations laid to rest by its decision was that selectors might choose, instead, to send 2017’s nationwide blockbuster Baahubali 2, a splashy fantasy about a muscular Hindu hero who reclaims his kingdom from corrupt rivals trying to cheat him of his patrimony. That reverie, complete with barbarian enemies and scheming palace traitors, straightforwardly plays on the desire to redeem the nation from an imagined history of victimhood.

Such a sentiment could not be more different than that of Newton, which questions some of Indian moviegoers’ most cherished beliefs. In a film industry happy to produce films like Baahubali that leave the status quo unperturbed, it strikes a rare note.

Co-written by two young screenwriters, Mayank Tewari and Amit Masurkar, and directed by Masurkar — whose only previous feature was Sulemani Keeda, a ditzy comedy about life in the film industry — Newton is set during a parliamentary election in the ancient forest that covers the central Indian region of Bastar. It tracks election day at a booth run by a petty bureaucrat on his first assignment, watched over by a protective detail of soldiers with hooded eyes and ready fists.

The protagonist, Newton Kumar — who, aspiring to leave behind his embarrassingly feminized birth name, Nutan, chooses to call himself after the great English scientist — is an upstanding young person from somewhere in the Hindi-speaking heartland. He is sent to oversee the fictional village of Kondanar, a tiny community of 76 tribal voters known as adivasis, or “first dwellers,” a term for indigenous Indian people. Few of them even understand Newton’s language, much less his intentions. The adivasis live under the twin shadows of occupying forces: the ultra-left Naxalites, waging a violent war against the Indian state, and the repressive and humiliating presence of Indian counterinsurgency forces.

Newton’s backstory may seem better suited to a Ken Burnsian national reckoning than an absurdist satire. In May 1967, poor peasants who took up arms against their landlords — the latter swiftly backed by the heft of state authorities — in a village in West Bengal called Naxalbari, began a left-wing revolt that soon aimed to overthrow the whole Indian state. This rebellion reached deep into central and eastern India—particularly its mineral-rich, thickly forested, poorly administered districts — and has simmered more or less constantly ever since.

For decades, the ranks of armed leftists fighting in jungles swelled with local recruits; some volunteered in desperation, others under duress. Over the last decade, the fight between rebels and the state has been led by, respectively, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), founded in 2004, and armed paramilitary forces, including the dreaded Salwa Judum militia.

The Salwa Judum, staffed largely by local tribal youth, was the regional authorities’ attempt at gaining home-field advantage in a part of the country that has seemed dangerous and foreign to the mainland since classical times. Its bloody clashes with guerrillas has resulted in widespread collateral damage, especially during the early months of Operation Green Hunt, an aggressive counterinsurgency operation that began to sweep the area in late 2009.

In a 2010 essay, the writer Arundhati Roy, who entered the conflict zone embedded with Maoist fighters, described life in Gondwana — the colonial name for the forested northeastern end of the Deccan Plateau — as a land in almost constant conflict with its rulers. Like many scholars and critics, she pointed out that even the modern Indian state, which imposed extractive forest controls in areas where adivasis lived largely as hunter-gatherers, functioned as a cruel colonial power there. When the Maoist rebel group and Salwa Judum formed in quick succession in 2004 and 2005, according to Roy, many adivasi youth had already tasted true freedom in cooperating with — and often participating in — the left’s destruction of state control in this area.

And so we arrive in Newton’s Kondanar, a place where Indian bureaucrats conduct elections even though Indian democracy is all but functionally absent. The comically straight-laced Newton goes to battle for the sanctity of the electoral ritual, conducted in the burned-out shell of a schoolhouse, destroyed in fighting between rebel and government forces. But toughing it out against his unfriendly protection detail, which openly disdains and fears the forest and the Naxalite guerrillas hidden inside it, is one thing. Convincing poor, apparently illiterate adivasis to vote is quite another.

The representatives of the sophisticated machinery of indirect democracy and the blunt instrument of military coercion, both wounded by the knowledge of their inability to order the landscape in which they’re trapped, turn on each other. The adivasis — bright, wary, and stubbornly silent — keep their distance. (Masurkar and Tewari’s screenplay, perhaps wary of wading into waters deeply unfamiliar to most mainlanders, keeps its distance from these unnamed characters, illuminating adivasi lives in brief sequences that function as the equivalent of sideways looks. They reserve the full force of their sardonic gaze for the state actors bumbling about as foolish occupiers.)

Midway through the film, a foreign correspondent brought to the polling booth chirps, “Indian democracy truly runs deep” — even as we see how thinly and unevenly it spreads on this territory. Indeed, Newton’s story undercuts one of the foundational myths of modern India: that the country’s democracy, however messy, encompasses all citizens. Many beliefs about Indian politics wither under scrutiny, but the notion of transparent and joyously participatory electoral rituals has generally held fast in the public imagination.

The film doesn’t just defile the sacrament of India’s robust and polyphonic democracy; by looking that democracy’s failures in deep tribal country in the face, it goes far enough to complicate its very legitimacy. Its criticism will ring painfully true in any country where indigenous peoples feel their freedoms have shrunk, rather than expanded, with the introduction of new political systems.

Newton’s titular protagonist is dismayed to discover that the forest dwellers don’t care about sending a politician they’ve never seen — campaigners don’t come to the forest — to parliament. “I am their leader. I’ll go to Delhi,” an elderly chief tells Newton as the clerk haltingly explains that the purpose of the vote is to choose an unknown man to represent them in Delhi. But the film works because the laugh is never on the adivasis, alien though they may seem to mainlanders — it’s on the state, tragicomically trying to compensate for its brutality with bureaucracy.

Such forthright criticism is rare in Indian pop culture. It is rarer still in popular Hindi cinema, the country’s best-known cultural export, which has long ignored adivasis except to appropriate their colorful headgear and approximate their dances for jungle fever sequences, and rarely had truck with radical politics of any stripe.

The sociologist Nandini Sundar begins The Burning Forest, her 2016 book about the contemporary history of the Bastar region, with an anecdote about a young man arrested in the 1970s for fomenting an anti-government rebellion in the jungles, at a time when the war in Vietnam exercised left-wing imaginations around the world. “You Naxalites talk so much about Vietnam,” a policeman gripes at the captive youth. “Show me where it is on the map.” The young man answers, “It is in my heart.”

That sort of sentiment almost never makes it into Bollywood movies, which over the past 25 years have punched well below their weight in the culture wars. The industry has fallen, accordingly, in the eyes of critics on both sides. In India, liberal critics and moviegoers remember the Bollywood of the decades between the 1950s and 1980s — when filmmakers adhered stoutly to old-fashioned working-man values — despise the turn toward interpersonal drama and eye-watering consumerism in the 1990s.

The truth, however, is that the Hindi-language movie business — unlike India’s smaller, non-Hindi film industries — has always been faithfully and unimaginatively statist. Newton is a notable exception to this rule. The brainchild of a young writer and a director who read widely about the Maoist conflict and were eager to tell an evenhanded story — without jingoism and, as Masurkar told journalists, without cynicism — it bluntly deflates the pomposity of India’s nationalist self-importance. The most sympathetic character in the movie isn’t Newton himself but the pragmatic young adivasi schoolteacher who assists him — a woman of wary eyes and soft words who embodies survival, rather than grandiose hope or despair.

Newton’s depiction of the security forces guarding the election party will no doubt displease many traditionally minded Indians, though the film’s lack of A-list stars and its young, relatively unknown makers have so far allowed the film to escape the kind of showy political protests with which right-wing forces typically greet movies suspected of betraying the national interest. This low-key success is especially striking because of India’s notoriously low tolerance for any kind of criticism of its military — something Newton undertakes very matter-of-factly. (The antagonist in the film, a police commander named Aatma Singh, is the sort of man who calls the local children “Mowgli” and gets villagers to slaughter their chickens for his lunch. Played by the fantastic actor Pankaj Tripathi, Aatma has the hypnotic effect of a gun-toting Kaa.)

Urbane Indian readers once read reports of electoral fraud from the badlands of rural India in much the same way as readers in a foreign country might have. Stories of electoral banditry caused alarm, but only against the background of more comforting knowledge that these were exceptions that proved the fundamental robustness of Indian democracy.

But in 2017, India’s political opposition created a sustained outcry over alleged fraud. Stoked by leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal, the anti-corruption activist-turned-chief minister of Delhi, questions about malfunctioning voting machines plagued state by-elections and municipal votes all year. The reluctance of the Election Commission of India to announce an election date for Gujarat — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state — also worried and angered many Indians. In this climate, releasing a film that dares question the fairness of India’s democracy feels much less transgressive than it would have even a year ago.

While Newton’s surprise box-office success may owe something to these new anxieties, the film’s fundamental criticism cuts much deeper. Newton dares question the propriety of state power itself, especially as exercised in the Bastar forest and similarly conflicted regions. The film’s title card reminds viewers that the war between Naxalites and the government has been going on for “more than three decades,” but outsiders have sought to occupy the region since the Bronze Age.

Newton highlights this history but gently. A genial wag, waiting for voters to arrive, remarks to Newton that Ravana, the villain of the epic Ramayana, commanded a flying chariot, making him India’s first pilot. “Look,” he says. “Doesn’t that look like a runway?” (Newton, a young man of heroic intransigence, responds, cuttingly: “Wasn’t Ravana from Sri Lanka?”)

From the most sincere representative (Newton himself, of course) to the most complacent, the officials in Newton impute every failure to an inadequacy of resources, never to the flaws of the situation itself. Perhaps this is the film’s own way of soft-selling its premise to an audience force-fed the myths of the gentle superiority of the Indian state since childhood.

“Sir,” says Malko, the young schoolteacher assisting Newton, “great things aren’t accomplished in a day. Even the jungle takes years to grow.” But Newton isn’t trying to grow a jungle. What he is trying to establish in its heart is the India outside the jungle, eager to uproot what exists there and seed itself in its place.

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of  FP magazine.

Supriya Nair is a Mumbai-based journalist and editor of The Caravan Book of Profiles. Twitter: @supriyan

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