There has been very little space for Dalit protagonists in the century-long history of Hindi cinema. The films have been dominated by protagonists who endorse upper caste cultural values and middle-class privileges. The caste question has often been invisible and when Dalit characters emerged they were true to subversive archetypes. In the post-globalised period, however, there has been a subtle evolution in the way Bollywood depicts Dalit characters. Newton — directed by Amit Masurkar — offers a new look at the Dalit subject: It depicts the Dalit as a casteless freeman and ruptures conventional norms and stereotypes.
Most reviews of the film neglect the protagonist’s social identity, while emphasising the film’s creative aspects. Newton, no doubt, is a refreshing entry in the genre of commercial art house cinema. However, more significantly, the director offers a new social imaginary to depict the film’s protagonist. A new Dalit hero is offered to the audience through the subtle use of certain symbolic gestures and social codes. It appears that Bollywood is ready to present a nuanced Dalit identity in its films.
The audience has to decode that the protagonist, Newton Kumar — brilliantly portrayed by Rajkumar Rao — is from a non-upper caste strata of society. They can see Babasaheb Ambedkar’s portrait in his living room for a second. In another scene, when he refuses a marriage proposal, Newton’s father scolds him and tells him that he will never get a Brahmin-Thakur girl’s hand in marriage. The term “reserved” is used in a symbolic way for Newton to indicate different categories (reservation for the Scheduled Castes) of job applicants. There is no loud announcement of Dalit subjectivity. But the intelligent use of such gestures allow the audience to ponder about the protagonist’s social background.
Newton is educated, honest and committed to his professional obligations as an Election Commission officer in a Naxal-affected constituency in Chhattisgarh. In contrast to Dalit characters in earlier films, Newton does not feel burdened or brutalised by his identity. He is an independent, rational thinking person, ready to perform his constitutional duty without fear or prejudice. His debates with the security forces commander, Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), shows that Newton has equal authority in the power discourse. He must be aware of his social past, but as an agent of the state, Newton empowers himself as a person with principles and challenges any effort to demean his constitutional authority.
Such a sense of freedom has not been available to a Dalit character in Hindi cinema before. In this respect, Newton offers a new Dalit hero — he is born into caste society but remains unaffected by its exploitative order. Newton’s caste identity is not a restriction in fulfilling his social or professional duties. He is like any other lead hero of mainstream Hindi films.
But Newton does have its limitations. One can ask to what extent will such “caste-free” portrayal of a Dalit person be welcomed in our socio-political discourses? Unlike earlier films, which depicted caste atrocities and social discrimination as systemic caste-feudal oppression, Newton avoids any discussion on such social realities and largely focuses on the protagonist’s duty as a state subject. The scriptwriter appears to be aware of the caste relationships that inflict violence upon the socially deprived masses and therefore avoids any mention of the protagonist’s social identity in the film’s later part. It appears that Newton’s veiled caste identity helps him perform his duty with righteous rigour. The narrative tries to suggest that caste should remain a meaningless category when the protagonist is an agent of the state. The filmmaker seems to be hesitating to take up the caste question in a substantive way. By neglecting social realities, the director also misses the opportunity to create a dynamic mainstream Dalit hero.