By Poulomi Das Sep. 21, 2017
At a time when most of us have been conditioned to complain about the dismal state of the country, Rajkummar Rao’s Newton succeeds in doing the impossible: Making idealism aspirational again.
Amit V Masurkar’s sophomore black comedy, Newton, is helmed by a character who is a strange sight in our world – a young man who is an idealist. The film’s eponymous lead is an anomaly not just in the surrounding he inhabits – a conflict-ridden, Naxal-infested zone nestled deep inside the jungles of Chattisgarh – but also in the context of the leads afforded to Hindi cinema.
When was the last time we saw an idealist in Hindi cinema? Perhaps, 13 years ago, when NASA engineer Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan) took a detour to Swades, and chose a country, imperfect in so many myriad ways over the comfort of an alien United States of America. But, even Bhargava’s brand of idealism wasn’t inherent. Instead, it was an acquired taste, one that he had to dig deep inside himself to recover, after many instances of criticising his country. For, he, like countless other Indians, complaining about the dismal state of the country, have been conditioned to be disillusioned. It’s almost like we’d been given a manual that screams, “Be anything but idealistic.” And, we’ve been following it blindly, without complaint. We’re too lazy to cause change, but not lazy enough to be products of armchair activism. Hindi cinema, and the cruelty of the world around us, has wrought in us a lucid understanding of idealism: It’s on its way to extinction.
That is, until we met Rajkummar Rao’s Newton Kumar, the rookie “sarkari afsar” about to preside over an election involving 76 Gondi-speaking adivasis, living far away from the embrace of urbanisation. His inexperience with bureaucracy is conspicuous from his determination to ensure that he gathers the votes in accordance with the laws of the constitution, despite the constraints of reality. In fact, Newton almost succeeds in doing the impossible: Making idealism aspirational again.
“It is this youthful idealism that doesn’t let Newton decipher a world beyond the realms of his responsibility.”
He’s too focused with the change he has been tasked with bringing about, to worry about dreadful consequences. He wakes up the moment his alarm announces the arrival of Election Day at 4 am. He refuses to cow down in front of corrupt and manipulative paramilitary commander Aatma Singh (an irrepressible Pankaj Tripathi). A perfect antithesis to Newton’s honest personality, Singh is disinterested in guiding the election officers on the long journey toward their makeshift polling booth, and dissuades them from carrying out their duty. Proxy signatures are fine. After all, of what consequence are 76 tribal votes? “The fact that you have reached here is good enough,” Singh tells Newton and the other officers. But, for the earnest Newton, shortcuts are never the answer.
For, in Newton’s head, the idea of democracy hasn’t been tainted as it has been in Aatma Singh’s head, who is convinced that bullying and intimidation are the real tangible weapons of a functioning democracy. His outlook toward elections isn’t akin to local polling officer Malko Nettam (Anjali Patil) either. Having grown up watching the piling oppression against her people, Malko has not just discerned the futility of democracy in a conflict-ridden zone, but has also resigned to accepting how exercising her fundamental right (of voting) doesn’t magically exact the fundamental rights granted to her people.
Newton is an unblinking portrait of unflinching hope and belief in his country. Drishyam Films / Colour Yellow Productions / Eros Now
Newton is an unblinking portrait of unflinching hope and belief in his country.
Drishyam Films / Colour Yellow Productions / Eros Now
Newton hasn’t even lived long enough like 59-year-old government servant and part-time writer Loknath (Raghubir Yadav), to be disillusioned with the superficial farce of democratic elections, whose secret ingredient is almost always fake votes. In their own way, these three may have given up on surmising that their actions can make a difference in the larger scheme of things, or that they can be agents of change, but not Newton. Newton is an unblinking portrait of unflinching hope and belief in his duty, the government machinery, and his country.
It’s probably why Newton sulks like a student unfairly punished by a school teacher – about to burst into uncontrollable tears any moment – when the tribals, who have been bullied into making their way to the polling booth by Aatma Singh and his band of cops, treat the act of voting as a mere game. On one hand, they are glaringly unaware of how an electronic voting machine is supposed to free them from their state and give them any agency, and on the other hand, Newton, is unable to comprehend the helpless state of their indifference.
However, he refuses to ween that there can exist such a disconnect between a country, and 76 of its citizens. He rejects the ostensible truth that in areas of insurgency such as the remote village of Dandakaranya, democracy cannot thrive, or give up at the saddening realisation that opposition to noble efforts in the current times usually comes from people of our own, and not enemies. It’s definitely why he chooses to risk his life and resort to the threat of violence, if it means being able to garner a few more votes from the tribals, willing to exercise their right sans coercion. Naturally, he is forced to the ground for his anomalous act of rebellion, but for Newton, it’s a small price to pay. He’s aware that in the cynical world that he inhabits, honesty is no longer just a virtue. It’s looked down upon more frequently than it is celebrated. But that is hardly enough to deter him.
Indeed, that moment is precisely when his Nutan Kumar rightfully transforms into Newton Kumar, a human embodiment of his 16th century namesake Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: An object remains in a state of rest, or of uniform motion unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external unbalanced force. Newton’s quiet acts of rebellion – whether it is guaranteeing that his polling booth remains open until the stipulated 3 pm deadline, or fighting tooth and nail to garner a few more votes – are the silver lining that our country unknowingly needs. Thankfully for us, Newton is certainly not fighting a lone battle. His inherently stubborn idealism, despite its steely repercussions, is the staple of many earnest Newtons hidden across the country. The ones who are the reaction to the glaring inaction in our democracy.
Newton is aware that in the cynical world that he inhabits, honesty is no longer just a virtue. But that is hardly enough to deter him. Drishyam Films / Colour Yellow Productions / Eros Now
Newton is aware that in the cynical world that he inhabits, honesty is no longer just a virtue. But that is hardly enough to deter him.
Drishyam Films / Colour Yellow Productions / Eros Now
Newton’s future could easily resemble that of Tukaram Munde’s, the IAS officer who was handed nine transfers in a span of 12 years for fighting corruption, or Ashok Khemka, best known for cancelling the mutation of Robert Vadra’s illegal Gurgaon land deal. Newton could very well end up being friends with DIG (Prisons) D Roopa, who in July this year was transferred by the Siddaramaiah government for shedding light on alleged corrupt activities inside a Bengaluru jail, and most importantly for accusing VK Sasikala Natarajan, the former AIADMK general secretary, of bribing top prison officials for undue favours. One can also imagine him lauding the bravery of Shreshtha Thakur, the Uttar Pradesh DSP, who became an internet sensation after a video of her taking on BJP workers for violating traffic rules went viral. Despite receiving widespread acclaim for her bravado in sending five goons to jail, she was promptly transferred to the Nepal border, a mere fortnight after the incident. It’s a given that Shreshtha wouldn’t be the last earnest officer to have faced the wrath of corrupt higher powers, who are convinced that they can manipulate democracy.
But, it’s also an assured reality that despite their circumstances, and the increasing jadedness of their fellow citizens, India’s many Newtons continue to flourish. They take pleasure in winning the small fights, instead of rushing in for the bigger battles. Because, like Newton, their greatest act of idealism would not be giving up on their country. And, just like Newton, the film that interplays with hope and change even while underlining crippling helplessness, these army of Newtons will succeed in snatching the sea of optimism from the jaws of pessimism.
Until then, their actions, sacrifices, and lives will be a manifestation of the lines of a song from the film:
Manzil door thhi
Dheemi chaal thhi
Udti dhool mein
Aankhen laal thhi
Chalte chalte khud rasta mudh gaya
Tujhko dekh ke panchhi udh gaya.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.