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In the middle of a ‘Naxal-infested’ area in Chattisgarh arrives a duty-bound polling office. His name is Newton, named after that guy with the apple. And his job is to hold elections in a place which has fallen off the map in India. The only people who are visible in these dense thickets are the adivasis who live there ( after a fashion , because we see burnt huts and their inhabitants herded into ‘camps’), and the security forces whose job it is to maintain order, and the dynamic that’s set up between these adversarial blocks ).
The world premiere of this sharp political satire , a rare creature in Indian cinema, lashed with underpinnings of stinging humour took place at the 67th film festival of Berlin to a full house, and ringing applause.
It’s always amazing to see how a film like this, which is so very specific to the Indian situation and the vexed conflict that has foxed so many administrators, and so many strategists, is screened to such impact in a European country.
After the screening, director Amit Masurkar and actors Rajkummar Rao, who plays the eponymous lead character with such efficacy, and the marvellous Pankaj Tripathi, along with Anjali Patil, were surrounded by viewers who’ve probably never heard of the ‘Naxal problem ‘ in their lives. Rahubir Yadav wasn’t present , but his salty, relaxed turn as an weary cog in the electoral wheel reminds us that this an actor we should see more of .
It was an engaged audience, and it gladdened the hearts of those of us who travel to such festivals as the Berlinale. Because it is, of course, to feast upon excellent cinema carefully curated from around the world . It is also about audiences acknowledging that Indian cinema is much more than singing-dancing Bollywood.
‘Newton’ is a brave attempt. Because it uses the feature film format to tell a story about on-going violence and exploitation and cynical political aggrandisement : anytime you hear the words Naxal, or Maoist in a film, it falls into the tried and tested formula. ‘Newton’ breaks that mould, refreshes hardened tropes, and makes us smile and think. Really hard. Because what effects India Interior today will one day ripple over and claw its way into our complacent urban, mall-infested enclaves.
Great start to a film festival which itself kick starts the calendar. It’s freezing in Berlin,but the action is just hotting up at the Berlinale!
It is, amongst all the film festivals, the most unabashedly political.
One of the red carpet dresses on the opening night had the word ‘Unpresidented’ across it. You couldn’t help laughing , and feeling a huge sense of elation. Where there are films, there is freedom.