Monday 3 July 2017

Sydney Film Festival (35 and final) - NEWTON (Amir Masurkar, India). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

Newton (2017), India. Amir Masurkar (
Director  and Co-Scriptwriter), Mayank Tewari (Co-Scriptwriter). Rajkummar Rao (Newton), Panjak Tripathy (Aatma Singh), Anjali Patili (Malko). Hindi language with English subtitles. Drishyam Films (Production Company)

I have enjoyed over several years the opportunity to write film reviews for this blog with the conspicuous support of its editor Geoff Gardner who has never made corrections to my script and has provided unstinting support for my no doubt eccentric views. During this current festival however, he begged to differ with me quite strongly about a film which will otherwise remain nameless. Instead of leaving this as a simple case of "different strokes for different folks" I think it should provide me with the opportunity and obligation to try and explain my values in reviewing any film. I think this may be helpful in case of the film, Newton, the main subject of this review.

It seems to me that truly fine films, once they have established the individual characters/protagonists with their personal characteristics, in the particular "world" of the film and subject to the "inciting incident" which is the motivator of action, certainly of the characters, and possibly of the world itself, the plotline development should follow rigorously the various "necessary" developments as would ensue with THESE characters in THIS situation in THIS particular world. So "cause and effect" or some concept of "logical necessity" is very important to me. The mere conjunction of one event after another (events moving over time) in my view NEVER provides the same dramatic imperatives as a plotline which involves cause and effect (and of course all the other things one looks for in plot development). I think this was the cause of my disagreement with Geoff. I'm making this comment now because I think it is relevant to the film under review.

It's my generalised view that drama is much more reliant on the necessity of a cause and effect plotline whereas comedy is often content with one event following another and with any necessary gaps in drama being covered by laughs.

There is another precursor matter which I would like to mention and it concerns the benighted issue of "colour". It's my subjective/anecdotal experience that Indian films, when they wish to move beyond the classification of Bollywood and appealing to an audience outside India itself, seem to choose protagonists with a much more Caucasian appearance. I'm really very apprehensive about using the expression "white". Although all the main principals mentioned above clearly have some degree of "colour", they are conspicuously lighter in shade than nearly all the subsidiary actors. There is or was an expression in Hollywood that to succeed an actor " Must be Jewish, so long as he didn't look Jewish!". Nearly everyone must have had the experience of watching a person who is a much easier person to understand because he is a WASP. In any event with this be true or not, it's not necessarily directly relevant or important to the review.

At one level, Newton is a very pleasing and well-constructed comedy. It will be relatively hard for an audience not especially knowledgeable about India to see it as anything else. But like all good films, including comedies, they can reflect on life's situation. And I think this film does it, in spades.

Newton (Rajkummar Rao) who fits the physical description I've described already, is what we in the West would call a "nerd" and in India is traditionally known as a "babu" or "officious clerk". Long a subject of humour in Indian literature and films, Newton is a failed applicant for the ICS. This, the Indian Civil Service, is where all the senior civil service members come from. It is a direct continuation of the regime established by the UK (the Raj). Although he is physically completely unlike the traditional babu, generally portrayed as fat and lazy. Mr Rao is lithe and athletic but he has all the petty rules based perspectives on his job and life. Presumably a member of the national electoral office, he is sent as a substitute as principal electoral office in a district with 74 registered potential voters. The voting area is in Nagaland which is one of the special districts in India, virtually cocooned from the rest of the country, to take "care" of the Aboriginal people there. As a background piece these people have long been the subject of discrimination within India and there has been for many years, somewhere between 30 and 40, a low simmering but nonetheless violent Maoist revolution going on.

In the first scene or so, a fairly typical Indian populist politician, seeking election is shot by a Maoist revolutionary. A few shots from an AK 47 at close range don't do  very much for one's longevity, so one can see why more sensible people would stay away. But not Newton. He has his objective, he knows his polling station and he has with him his support staff of the usual lower middle level public servants who want to do as little as possible, over as long as possible, and certainly in this case, get out as quickly as possible because everyone (except apparently Newton) knows that the Maoists constitute a personal danger and they have warned off the villagers from voting in any event.

The voting team arrives at the camp/Fort of the local police force. I am pretty sure that this particular police outpost is that of the Indian Border Police which somewhat contrary to name is in fact an extremely powerful paramilitary force of very considerable size and is the front line defence in the event of hostilities with in particular the age old enemy, Pakistan. The captain,  Aatma Singh, is played by Panjack Tripathi, who while certainly darker in hue than Newton, nonetheless has very Caucasian features, very regular, good-looking, with slicked shiny black straight hair, like a 1930s Hollywood matinee idol and with the almost mandatory military moustache. He is a seasoned veteran and knows full well that Newton's mission is completely pointless. He is not concerned even by the appearance of democracy and is quite prepared to have his subordinates forge voting cards or ultimately physically drag the villagers to the police encampment which is unacceptable to Newton because voting must take place at the nominated polling station, which turns out to be a semi ruined building in the middle of nowhere.

So here are two symbols more readily recognisable by Indian people than by us in the West. The inflexible rule driven babu whose attention to rules is substantially unproductive and may even be dangerous and the pragmatic experienced and pessimistic military officer who effectively believes in nothing. The plot develops around the interaction of these two people representing two different principles of government and social interaction. Pedantic Newton gets the upper hand because certain rules were developed in the period of action against the Raj in the 1920s and 1930s by independence movements. Again these rules which remain on the books would be much better known to educated Indians than Westerners. It was possible in times of severe riots for the police to call in the military "in the defence of the civil". This in turn has led to rules in elections where at a polling station and 200 m beyond, the polling official (Newton) has complete authority; beyond that it is the military.

The plot develops in terms of the interaction between the two and it is genuinely quite funny. The comments I've made about the deeper significance and not necessary to enjoy this film but I do think they had an extra level which is worth considering. India certainly is the biggest democracy in the world but this film does help to put matters in perspective as to what "democracy" actually means.

Indian people generally have a very mixed attitude to the "native populations": variously the Aboriginals and the "protected classes". They are not well treated and in this film there is little attempt to make them attractive either mentally or physically. They are shown as being grossly underdeveloped, surviving as hunter gatherers. While it may be excessive for this reviewer in the safety of Australia to comment endlessly about racism in India, that's the way it is. One exception to this is the exceptionally beautiful apparently Naga primary school teacher who ultimately develops a romantic attachment to Newton. A beautiful woman and beautifully turned out in the heat of the jungle, she is certainly no Naga.

All in all, great fun.

Editor’s Note: Max Berghouse began writing his elegant film reviews after retiring from the business world and leaving corporate law behind. He still practices as a solicitor but has much more free time and thus now frequently avails himself of the opportunity to see quality cinema in the theatres and catch up on film noir via DVD and streaming. I say this in response to Max’s kind words in his lead-off paragraph. I am always delighted to receive his contributions.

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