After-shoot revelry: Tribal actors singing and dancing after the completion of the shoot.   | Photo Credit: Pranhita Sen

For most of the film’s Adivasi actors, it was their first time in a cinema hall

Israr Ahmed, a TV journalist in south Chhattisgarh’s Kondgaon district, was a sad but busy man on Friday evening. He was busy making arrangements for a special screening of Newton, India’s entry at the Oscar’s this year.

He was sad because Baisakho and Gandoram, two of the 25 Adivasi actors in the film, had passed away recently. “It’s a pity they could not attend the screening. But their family members did, and they were sad,” said Ahmed. The rest of the Adivasi actors, all from the villages of Kongera and Kiyevalenda in Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts respectively, were “super happy” to see the film, Ahmed said.

“Firstly, they had all acted in a Bollywood film. Second, most of them were watching a film in a cinema hall for the first time. For them, it was one hell of a party,” said Ahmed, who himself played the role of a cameraperson in the film.

Newton has picked most of its actors, other than those playing the major roles, from Chhattisgarh. And Mangal Kunjam, 26, is one of them. Kunjam, a fearless journalist in real life, plays himself in the film. He had received death threats in real life. “I was told I would be bumped off,” he said, for having raised uncomfortable questions in his work. In Newton, he does exactly the same thing: ask an uncomfortable question.

“The director told me I could ask any question to the actor playing the police chief,” recalls Kunjam. “I couldn’t stop myself from asking a genuine question that was bothering me.”

In the film, Kunjam asks the police chief why Adivasi youth “were made to surrender, and then forced to pick up the gun again,” a reference to the Salwa Judum, a militia of Adivasis mobilised by the state for anti-insurgency operations.

Pranhita Sen, daughter of Binayak Sen, the eminent activist who had worked for many years among the Adivasis in Chhattisgarh, plays the District Collector.