Perceptive and mordant, Newton is one of the most thought-provoking Hindi films in recent times. It chronicles the efforts of a resolutely sincere election official (played by Rajkummar Rao) to oversee polling in a Maoist-affected constituency in Chhattisgarh, as he battles a world-weary paramilitary officer (Pankaj Tripathi), who does not share his devotion to the rulebook, and the apathy of the Adivasi voters. Scripted by Mayank Tewari and Amit V Masurkar, based on the latter’s story, and directed by Masurkar, the satire has been reviewed glowingly and collected under `12 crore in ticket sales in its first week. The film’s selection as India‘s official entry for the best foreign language film at the Oscars has certainly helped. This is 36-year-old Masurkar’s second feature, after Sulemani Keeda, an endearing independent comedy. He talks to G Seetharaman about how the film took shape and why he is not losing sleep over claims that Newton is similar to a 2001 Iranian film, Secret Ballot. Edited excerpts:
On Newton being a marked departure from Sulemani KeedaMy only concern with my first feature was not to mess up and to tell a story which is co herent. I had never directed actors before. I had only done corporate films and short films for NGOs. When my editor showed me the first cut of Sulemani Keeda, my first emo tion was a sense of relief. With Newton, I was more confident. So the focus was on telling the story I wanted to tell.

On his journey from writing a script on a political dynasty in the electoral fray to Newton

We wrote that in 2008 or 2009. We lived with an MP. It was me and co-writer at that time, Hitesh Kewalya (who wrote the screenplay and dialogue for Shubh Mangal Saavdhan).We travelled to Kushinagar and Gorakhpur (in Uttar Pradesh)… It was about a dynasty, a scandal, a conspiracy. When you research for that, you find really interesting election stories. Like, how in Arunachal Pradesh, polling officers travel for two days on foot with the EVM (electronic voting machine) on the backs of donkeys or how in the Gir jungle (in Gujarat) there is just one voter.Initially I thought of setting it (Newton) in Gir where the polling party lands and this voter is missing and they are looking for him. I was thinking of several stories. I wanted to do a story from the other side, an election in a strange place. We are talking about India being the world’s largest democracy and I felt this story needed to be told.

Then a friend of mine gifted me Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita… After that, I watched the documentary Red Ant Dream. I wrote the first draft in 19 days for a script lab in 2013. And visually I started seeing Bastar for this film, as in the whole region… Later we started reading other books -Nandini Sundar’s book (Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar, 18542006), Ilina Sen’s book (Inside Chhattisgarh:

A Memoir). Then we started meeting the authors… Then we met lawyers working in that area, Adivasi activists, surrendered Naxals, local journalists, voters, police officers, paramilitary officers, Election Commission officials… Mangal Kunjam, a local journalist, helped us on the film. He was our consultant and he just didn’t introduce us to Bastar and Dantewada, he introduced us to many people and was on set as a language consultant.Another guy who helped me is Javed Iqbal (journalist). The village you see in the film is based on his photos. He also introduced me to Mangal. He read the script and constantly watched my cuts.

On his visit to the Election Commis sion headquarters in Delhi

I just walked into Nirvachan Sadan and said I want to meet the Election Commissioner of India. They were really surprised. I said I’m writing a film on elections. He was not there so I met his deputy, Sudhir Tripathi, who was extremely helpful. He asked me to go on the website and read the presiding officer’s manual. Newton is somebody who is just following the manual. Newton is not a hero, he is just a protagonist. He need not be politically correct or enlight ened. He is following the rules because they are there and that’s his job.

On Newton’s critique of elections

The EC has a huge task at hand. It’s logisti cally mind-boggling how they conduct elec tions. The moment you start talking to offi cials and go on the ground, you realise there a lot of Newtons out there. It’s not unique. A lot of people are following the rules. That’s why governments keep changing and power ful people are defeated in elections. At the same time, there might be instances of booth capturing, bogus voting. The idea is do you say elections are bad or that action is bad? If that action is bad, that needs to be stopped.

Election is just a tool. The important things are the principles of humanity and democ racy, where everyone should be able e to vote and everyone’s voice is heard. There e is a gap between this and how it is happenening in reality.

If you look at it, how they are held in some places, it is questioned by journalists and by people who live there. Just because it is held in a wrong way in some areas it does not mean the whole system is bad. You need to strengthen the process and make people aware of their rights

On the film’s Oscar chances

I think we have a good enough chance, as much as any other film from India before… Our intention is not to spend a lot of money. We have not made this film to go to the Oscars or Berlin (film festivals). Ourr main reason was for our people to watch it… We have opened in Jagdal-alpur, Kondagaon, (both in Chhattisgarh) garh) and Gorakhpur. In Almora it’ll open n now.

On whether the plagiarism charges have put a dampener on n the film’s success

I told you about the people we met et and their experiences which have come me into the film. We were on the field for eight months doing legwork. After that at we wrote it, cast Rajkummar, had the he finance in place and then went to Chhat hhattisgarh. After that if somebody tells me there is another (similar) film… this s is a film about elections, which happensens in India, and an honest election offi fficial, and India is not short of honest est officials. Especially after TN Seshan, an, everybody knows what the Election on Commission is… It wasn’t something ng like, `Oh my God, Kya kar diya ya maine!’ It (Iranian film) was someething I heard about. We went to Berrlin and we won there, and then we e went to Hong Kong and won there e also. I never heard anybody mention this and these are people who watch more films than these Versova boys.