A New Dalit Hero

‘Newton’ showcases a protagonist unencumbered by his past

Written by Harish Wankhede | Updated: October 5, 2017 10:21 am
Dalit Hero, hindi cinema, bollywood, newton, caste in bollywood, social identity, dalit character, indian express column A still from the movie ‘Newton’

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.

The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. D
    Oct 7, 2017 at 12:48 am
    I don't agree with the argument. Caste and Dalit aspiration both are two different things. State as an en y includes the Dalit subjects in its making but it is the dominant and dominated actors who play with the caste differently at conscious and unconscious level. It is true caste cannot be done away with while holding a Dalit iden y in India. But on contrary it can be played out in new ways to step ahead in certain ways towards the larger concept of modernity. So, to judge that caste remain meaning less just because it does not take you to its fatal sides is reduction of the ways a Dalit seeks path for the future. It takes to creative sides as well where different and new perspective are given priority, something should not seem odd to dominant academic standards of 'Indian' social science and political science.By the way is it less a violence that a Dalit has to change his or her name/surname?
    1. R
      Rapist Christian Pope
      Oct 6, 2017 at 2:04 am
      Why is that such a big news was not brought by media? Because Indian media is controlled by rapist Christians. Please google for yourself. United Nations report: Christian Vatican Church Policies And Pope Allowed Christian Priests To Rape Children. The United Nations heavily criticized the Vatican church and Pope for what it said was a systematic adoption of policies allowing christian priests to rape and sesxually abuse millions of children. The devastating report published by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of a Child said the Vatican christian church and Pope must "immediately remove" all known or suspected child abusers and christian priests or father within the clergy. It said the Pope aka Holy See had "systematically placed preservation of the re tion of the church and the offender over the protection of child victims." It added that Pope was himself responsible for all these rapes
      1. S
        Shailendra Awale
        Oct 6, 2017 at 1:25 am
        But can Newton and Netam offers new coalition over the cup of tea during the official lunch time. Can thos coalition redeem ambedkar view about the tribal. Is Netam not more empowered due to her own sense of iden y, commited to the duty and socio political analysis of problem. Newton though studied for UPSC has very limited understanding in spite of his zeal. He has opted for welfare and paternalist approach to the development of the reserved cons uency. For him an election is a duty, for an officers and citizen too. Netam is quite sharp with her one sentence analysis but an empathy and humanist perspective who makes a point to visit Newton, search him in his new location and enquires his well being without expecting anything. But Newton had almost forgotten her, had never share an incidence who was a colleague at the mission. Newton has to complete a task, fulfill a duty but had no idea on cause, effect or purpose of elections. Netam is a trur hero. So should return with Netam.
        1. Seshubabu Kilambi
          Oct 5, 2017 at 9:51 pm
          The film is a story with a difference ..it may not portray full reality but it succes in depictig dalut iden y
          1. J
            Oct 5, 2017 at 5:30 pm
            The author has failed to understand -how dalit is an agency of state, who has strong faith in electoral democracy -which is actually pitching against adivasi. However the dialogue is so important between the two actors. Again the author didn't bring the notice to the public. Author critic to the director seems to be point of view of Dalit reading of movie. But that wouldn't be the case. In fact that is the reality. Dalits are official position to conduct such exams. But the director hinted in right place to show that how dalit is used against Adivasi. Also director try to show that there could be a common ground for both dalit and Adivasi to witness that both are victim of the state. Both can actually fight being in the system and outside. Because both are honest and try to perform their duty and make it for social transformation.
            1. सुधाकर इंगोले
              Oct 5, 2017 at 9:13 pm
              I think the above comment is more subjective by giving a general substantiation rather generalising the crux of the argument made by author. I say so for A)it is well known that how Dalit as an agency used for so many political reasons. B)the dialogues between Newton and Atma Singh is completely a matter of power (especially from Mr. Singh's side) (bt u didnt mention, wht do u mean by importance of dialogues). (i think dialogues between these 2 have nothing to do with caste) It only about authority of power and a fear rather ego of Singh that somebody (Newton) trying to overtake it especially in front of other soldiers, this can be supported by the dialogues between these two (which I think an irrational arrogance to bring the emotional effect about nationalism) "Vardi me Vinati bhi Dhamki lagti he", pointing to Gun ".. Bhari hain na, ye Desh ka Bhar hain aur Hamare Kandhe pe hain" C)I dont think any Adivasi could differentiate between a Dalit and upper caste officials, though directo
              1. A
                Oct 5, 2017 at 11:50 pm
                Crap analysis
              2. Load More Comments