While editing his slacker-comedy debut feature, Sulemani Keeda (2013), writer-director Amit Masurkar already had the idea for his next project. He was idling away time on his computer and the word “elections” caught his eye. Even though producers were asking for a repeat of his debut film, Masurkar had set his sights on his next project, a film that would explore themes such as “democracy, identity and duty”.
One thing led to another and four years later, the 36-year-old is gearing up for the Indian release of his second project, Newton, which had its world premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it won the International Federation of Art Cinemas award.
The September 22-release which has Rajkummar Rao in the lead as the eponymous character, an election official on duty in the jungles of Chhatisgarh, is far away from the comfortable environs of Mumbai’s Versova suburb, the location for Masurkar’s debut feature. Co-written with recurring collaborator Mayank Tewari, Newton, which was shot entirely on location, also stars Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil and Raghubir Yadav.
What is Newton about?
The film is set on the day of the elections from the point of view of a duty-bound election official. Newton is a government servant whose job it is to conduct free and fair elections in the middle of the jungle in a Maoist-influenced area.
What inspired you about the subject matter?
I have always been interested in politics and history. The gap between the ideals of democracy and the way it is practiced is huge and we’re all aware of it. One afternoon, I was randomly typing words on a blank computer screen and wrote down words like constitution, election, electronic voting machine. I suppose that started this journey.
What interests you about a character like Newton?
Newton is quirky, because he has tunnel vision when it comes to doing his duty. You read about these characters in the news, officers who keep getting transferred for being upright. I find these characters interesting because they behave differently from the rest of us
Would you say this is a leap forward from your micro-budget debut Sulemani Keeda? Did you prepare differently in terms of working with a larger crew or directing established actors?
With Sulemani Keeda, I had to work backwards. I wanted to make a film so I had to see what was available to me and then weave a story around it. With Newton, the idea came first. It wasn’t about fitting into a budget or a genre. So the process of working on this film was different.
With respect to the challenges of physically putting together this film, one just needs to be patient and plan well. For that I had great actors and a very able crew.
My biggest challenge was to represent the people and politics correctly, and to get the facts right. Through out the shoot, I would spend the evenings in intense discussions with my co-writer [Mayank Tewari] and cinematographer [Swapnil Sonawane] examining whether we were on the right track.
What kind of research did you undertake?
There aren’t too many books on this topic but one of the first documents I read was a 2008 Planning Commission report on Left Wing Extremism which had authors like Ajit Doval and Bela Bhatia. They seem to have understood the problem correctly. I read Nandini Sundar’s Subalterns And Sovereigns: An Anthropological History Of Bastar, 1854-1996, which helped me understand the history and culture of the region. Rahul Pandita’s Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story Of India’s Maoist Movement was the first book I read on the subject. Javed Iqbal, who had widely reported in that area, helped out with his resources. There were others like Ilina Sen and local journalist Mangal Kunjam who helped us. The latter is also starring in the film.
But our research wasn’t limited to reading and meeting people in Delhi. We spent time in Chhattisgarh meeting all kinds of people: police officers, surrendered Maoists, civil servants, paramilitary, local residents and election officials. On set, we had a para-military consultant and a local language consultant.
Why did you choose to film on location?
The film is set in Chhattisgarh, and we wanted to get the flavour right, everything from Gondi and Chhattisgarhi actors, dialects, to the topography of the area which is very unique.
Were there any security concerns?
Before we went there, we were warned by several people not to venture into southern Chhattisgarh. But both – the government and the Maoists never bothered us, as they saw us as a harmless Bollywood film crew
You have cited Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God as an influence.
I saw the film for the first time in 2005 in Max Mueller Bhavan and have seen it several times since then. I have always wanted to shoot in the jungle ever since. Aguirre is about power and greed going wild in the deepest of jungles, Newton is about bringing Western civilisation’s loftiest idea, democracy, into the jungle
Since your film deals with political issues, were you worried about running into problems with the censor board?
Not really and we have received a U/A certificate with no cuts. It’s an entertaining film about a situation we don’t get to watch on screen. We have treated this with a humanist approach. And despite this if somebody gets offended, it’s their problem.
Is it difficult to find an audience for a film like this? Are they appreciated more abroad or on the festival circuit?
I think there is a big audience in India for all kinds of films. Lack of awareness is a major reason why we miss a lot of good films. The presenters, Aanand L Rai and Eros, are making sure that Newton reaches its audience.
What exactly is the nature of your collaboration with Aanand L Rai?
He’s the presenter, which means that in collaboration with Eros, he is investing in the release of the film. Earlier we were going to release it on 150 screens but now with his help, it’ll be a bigger release.
After Sulemani Keeda, you are making a full-fledged Bollywood venture with established actors. Is there a feeling that you have arrived?
The idea is to enjoy the journey. I’m now working on making the next film.