When Anjali Patil was contacted by director Amit Masurkar for his upcoming black comedy Newton, she was on a trip to a monastery in Nepal. The self-declared nomadic traveller was thrilled when she found out that Newton would see her play a school teacher-turned-local block level officer in Chhattisgarh, far away from Mumbai.

Patil plays Malko Netam, a strong-willed tribal woman in a movie that has won critical praise for its handling of a sensitive subject. In the September 22 release, Rajkummar Rao plays the titular character, a presiding officer who is determined to hold a free and fair election in a Chhattisgarh village despite the threat of Naxalite violence and all-round cynicism.

“Malko is you and me, but from a different locality,” Patil said. “She has seen the violence from both the sides – the rebels and the government. And there is no bitterness about her. These were some of the reasons why I was drawn to Malko. Also shooting on location was a plus because I am not really a Mumbai person.”

The Drishyam Films production had its world premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival in February, where it won the International Federation of Art Cinemas award. The movie also stars Pankaj Tripathi and Raghubir Yadav.

Newton (2017).

Patil made her big-screen debut with Prashant Nair’s independent feature Delhi in a Day in 2011 after finishing a direction course at the National School of Drama in Delhi. While she forgot about the film once it was released, she was surprised by its response at international film festivals.

Patil went on to play Juhi, a Naxalite commander, in yet Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh (2012) and also featured in Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Mirzya (2016). Among her most well-known films is the Telugu production Naa Bangaaru Talli (2013), in which she plays a teenager who battles sex traffickers. The movie got a National Film Award for Special Mention.

Naa Bangaaru Talli (2013).

“A script is either brilliant or not brilliant,” Patil explained. “And when it is brilliant, you have to be part of it because you can add on to it and shine even more. I look for a good story with logical and emotionally reasonable characters. It should be something I can take something from. If there is nothing for me to take out from, I might as well watch the pigeons fly.”

Playing Malko needed her to speak the native Gondi language. “It wasn’t very difficult because I had a local person helping me with the dialect,” she said. “We would just sit on the ground and just talk to them and observe them. And these are just beautiful people. When you look at them, their eyes are so crystal clear. There is no judgement there.”

Anjali as Malko Netam in Newton. Image credit: Drishyam Films.

Patil has been vocal in speaking up about the colour bias in the film industry, but she concedes that she has been boxed into stereotypes herself. “I haven’t faced any issue directly, but the roles that would come to me would sometimes be that of a victim or a downtrodden girl from an impoverished family,” she said. “There are fair-skinned people who are poor, and so are there dark-skinned people who are rich. The stereotypical projection of characters is very kiddish.”

Patil’s upcoming releases include Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, alongside Rajinikanth, and Mehra’s social drama Mere Pyaare Prime Minister. She is tight-lipped about her character in Kaala, a gangster thriller set in Mumbai, and will only reveal the name of her character: Puyal Charumathi Gaikwad.

“It is a good, strong role,” Patil said. “Rajini sir is just amazing. He is gracious, loving and everything that I wanted to see in an artiste and person of power. And the effect he has on other people is celebration. When he comes, you are happy. When he smiles, life is good. This is something we all have to learn from him.”