Interview

 
 
Place: New York

Examine Democracy Before It’s Too Late

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

In the 2016 US presidential election, 136 million people voted, a figure which marks the second lowest total voter turnout since 1996. Is this evidence that we are arriving at the point where we are unable to believe in democracy? Meanwhile in India, more than 800 million people went to the polling stations to vote in an election that had the largest turnout in human history, even though there are many tribes that still sustain their traditional life apart from contemporary society. Filmmaker Amit V Masurkar’s compelling second feature “Newton,” which had its North American Premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, explores the perception of democracy in India, in a time when, in the West, the idea itself is becoming dull, and aggressive political tides are about to devour the world.

 

The film follows Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), an aspiring and idealistic young government clerk who, during India’s record-breaking election, is entrusted to collect votes from 74 registered voters of the indigenous Gondi tribes in Chhattisgarh. In the remote jungle village, where war between the Maoist communist guerrillas and the Indian state rages incessantly, Newton braves unpredictable dangers to carry out his belief in conducting a “free and fair” election in which every vote counts.

 

The atmosphere of “Newton” is mild and humorous, but when a change comes suddenly, it catches us off guard, much like the predicament we find ourselves in now, being so used to democracy. Newton, in pursuit of pure votes, throws us fundamental questions such as “what is democracy for” and “why are elections important,” however there is also the question of the indigenous tribes, who are basically forced to participate in democracy, modernism, and other people’s dreams. Newton believes that one’s own strong, sincere and unwavering will can bring change, but he is also impatient. As one character advises him early in the film, “Keep working with your honesty intact, the country will progress along side.” In the current of the world today, the voices of people are fading in the turbulence. Perhaps it’s the very moment for us to rethink democracy, if there are still possibilities for it to grow, before it’s too late.

 

 

COOL sat with director Amit V Masurkar to discuss “Newton” during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

 

 

“It’s not necessary that just because you have democracy

people’s human rights are being respected”

 

You were inspired to make the film from reading the preamble of the Constitution of India. Could you tell me briefly what it says and how does it speak to the current situation of the country?

The preamble to the constitution talks about equality and social justice, and that is something which you see in the constitution, but, in reality, there’s a gap between what is written and what is practiced. I wanted to make a film to explore that gap. So, then I thought, let me set it up on the day of the election, in a polling booth, so you’re stripping it off and making it very minimalistic: in a polling booth, one day, election day, and the conflict is external. There is an entity which doesn’t want the election to happen. And you see that in Chhattisgarh, you know, so it was telling me to be set there. That is the only day that voters feel powerful. People feel like, “my opinion is being taken.”

 

You wanted to make a film about democracy. Why is it important to explore democracy now?

Because you feel that once you vote, your job is done. And I used to feel the same. But once you start realizing that the battle is everyday, you have to keep fighting, you know? You have to keep talking about things you feel are just. “Newton” is about a person who’s trying to fight his battle everyday.

 

Could you talk about the character Newton?

He’s working as a government clerk; no young person wants to do that anymore. There are better jobs to do. So I think the young generation, especially in small towns like Chhattisgarh, they’re very aspirational; they want to be upwardly mobile. They want to go out. Nobody wants to stay there. And he also has a little chip on his shoulder. He’s a little pompous guy who’s named himself Newton (his real name is Nutan). It’s somebody who lives in a small town but thinks that he has this world vision. I found that character also very interesting.

 

I was happy to know that these indigenous people exist away from modern society. How did you research their lives, or try to get to know their culture?

It’s very tricky, this whole indigenous people politics, because on one hand, there are people who believe that you have to give them the space of isolation; on the other hand, if you do that, then the rest of the society goes in one direction, and if somebody from that society wants to move out, they feel at a loss; they feel like they’ve been denied something. And if you try to integrate them, that is also very unjust and ruthless because you’re suddenly imposing some other culture on somebody who’s not used to it. First of all, I tried to learn the history of the people, so that helped me understand the context of who are these people. Also, I read up about the conflict. Then I started picking things from both these places and put it in the story.

 

Since you used indigenous people who are not professional actors for the film, there is some documentary quality to the film. Were you conscious of that aspect while shooting?

I think so because there is a lot of talent in that area. When we did auditions, we found a lot of good actors who were natural in front of the camera who had never watched films in their lives, because there was no TV or cinema. They had never watched it. But they were good at performing. They are very artistic people. And they were not afraid of the camera. When I told them that this is what we were doing, and we want to show your story, a lot of them came up with suggestions and improvisations, especially in the scene where the police raids. We told them when the police come to take you away, what would you say? They would improvise it and we would shoot it.

 

Indigenous people don’t want to take either side, the Indian state or the Maoists. They just want to live their life.

Not necessarily. What I wanted to say was, there are all kinds of people. Some people want to take the Maoists’ side; some people want to take this side; many people don’t want to take any sides. There are different voices. So you cannot say what do indigenous people want, because that statement in itself is incorrect. You cannot group people so diverse in opinions together just because they are ethnically similar. It’s like saying what do Jewish people in New York want. How can you say? One has to respect the various different opinions that all these people have. That’s why you see even the politician in the beginning of film, he’s a tribal as well. Some of the people who work with the police, they were tribal as well. So all kinds of people are there, and they do this for various reasons. Somebody must be inspired purely by money, somebody by revenge, somebody by ignorance.

 

I was interested in this scene where the foreign media comes in. So I guess that some of the indigenous people are forced to get involved with democracy, and that entertains people in the west. Could you talk about this fascination?

This is also again a very complicated subject of discussion. Because, democracy, when it started in Greece, only landowners and men could vote. In the US, only men could vote; women started voting later. Then black people were not allowed to vote. Democracy itself as a machinery is something that has various interpretations, but democratic ideals are something else. I don’t think every society is used to that. There are a lot of societies where it’s ok if there’s a king who’s ruling, or it’s ok if they have another form of democracy, as long as the rights of people are respected. It’s not necessary that just because you have democracy people’s human rights are being respected. So even if you want to change now from a feudal system to a democratic system, it cannot be done by force; you can’t attack a place—like Libya, or North Korea—and decimate it and expect democracy to come. It has to come from within. You have create that atmosphere of the will to change.

 

 

“Do we really know the people we vote for?”

 

The film raises questions about elections themselves: while it is the symbol of democracy, we are still voting for people whom we don’t know. Could you talk about your opinion on elections?

Do we really know the people we vote for, even in the US or France? We take what is shown to us on media. Then somebody says, oh this guy sent pictures of his penis to people like that guy Anthony Weiner. You see it on the news and you don’t really know what people actually are doing behind their doors, or how much money do they really have, what are the companies they have stocks in. We just go by the public image that is presented to us. Nobody really knows, so it’s difficult to really know whom you’re voting for. Somebody may be pretending to be very liberal; you don’t really know what is their agenda.

 

The film has this sense of slow burn. Then suddenly in the middle there is a big turning point. Could you talk about the structure of the film, and what did you want to convey by it?

The structure was something that we discovered after we had written it. It was set on Newton’s three laws of motion. The first law is inertia, so you see that Newton has a lot of potential to do something, but he still needs that push. And once he’s pushed, he is in the momentum. And then the third one is when there is a reaction, he gives an equal and opposite reaction. Once we were conscious of that we started tweaking it accordingly. Also structurally, it has three acts, like a traditional American film, but the first two acts are pretty small, the third act is longer.

 

The relation officer whom Newton is having a conversation with at the beginning says “In the eyes of nature, we are all equal. King or beggar.” Why did you want to express this?

We are powerless when we are in front of nature’s fury. Whatever we may be, businessman or whatever, in front of nature, we can be reduced to nothing. It treats everyone equally, the jungle or natural calamity. So, at the end of the day, you may think that you know a lot, but when you’re out there in the wild, it’s something totally different. It’s not the knowledge you have gained for so many years living in a city, it basic survival skills.

 

There is also a line about Newton’s “arrogance about honesty.” What inspired you to this?

So the line is, “Oh, I’m honest,” but Loknath (Raghubir Yadav) says, “You don’t need to be arrogant about it.” Because what is the big deal about being honest? It’s the most natural thing to be, like children. These basic qualities like honesty or punctuality, they’re really celebrated now, like it’s the new thing. That’s why in the end he gets the certificate for being punctual, which is another thing which he finds funny, because he’s trying to just live an honest life, or just do what he’s supposed to do.

 

Humans often forget that we are part of nature. The character Malko (Anjali Patil) says, “Great change doesn’t come in a day” and “The jungle grew over years,” so this allows us to look at ourselves from a different point of view. What was your intention?

If you have to sum up what Malko believes in one line, that would be the line; what you’ve seen today, we’ve been seeing for years, we grew up seeing this, so just be patient. Newton is somebody who’s just learned about this, and wants to bring about change. You can’t do that; it will just break you. So just be patient. That’s the advice she gives.

 

That line that she says is really strong, and we are in a hurry, I feel like, but maybe patience is something we should make the effort to cultivate. Democracy has to communicate with patience.

Absolutely. How can you expect everyone to be like Finland or Norway, you know? You have welfare, people know their rights, and everything is perfect. It will take time. Every civilization will go through its own ups and downs to reach that. There are so many problems. There’s poverty, there’s the lack of education, population, and misinterpretation of religion, you have so many issues—the side effects of years of colonialism. So it’s going to take time.

 

 

Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Photo Courtesy of Drishyam Films

 

Tribeca Film Festival Official Website

Drishyam Films