Beware! Democracy in Progress!

in 22nd International Film Festival of Kerala

by Harri Römpötti

Beware! Democracy in Progress!

India, with its 1,3 billion people, is said to be the largest democracy in the world. Democracy at best is a relative business, as is seen in Amit V Masurkar’s Newton, the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize in Kerala, India.

With nine million polling booths, more than 800 million voters facing huge inequalities, the politics of the vast subcontinent are not easily fitted in one movie. Masurkar wisely adjusts the scale and zooms in on a tiny village in the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh. There are only 76 voters there, but plenty of conflicts. The area is said to teeter with Maoist guerillas.

In the movie’s microcosm, the guerillas seem shadowy. The background of the movie is based on reality. During the week of the Kerala festival in December, there was a news piece in a local paper reporting the killing of eight Maoist extremists in Telangana, the neighboring state to Chhattisgarh.

Judging by the tiny size of the newspaper item, the incident seemed to be commonplace. Since the conflict between the Maoist and the government started in its present form around 2005, reports state that hundreds of people have been killed annually.

Newton Kumar, a volunteer election official, finds himself thrown in this political cauldron. He’s an idealist – honest and proud. He’s named after Sir Isaac Newton, the physicist who invented the law of gravity. But Newton is no Einstein. There’s no space for relativity in his perfectionist approach to the laws and regulations of the electoral system.

Newton is unconditional to the point of stupidity. Yet, it would be difficult to argue that he’d be wrong, in principle. But in the movie many try to. Newton soon finds himself in conflict with the army unit sent to protect his team and the process of elections.

The officer in charge is willing to bend every rule, as long as everything goes smoothly. Getting the votes is no great concern until the international media turns up. Then he’s willing to agitate the citizens to vote at gunpoint.

The villagers in the middle of everything have their own ancient customs that don’t have many parallels with modern politics. They’ve never even heard of any of the candidates and have difficulty seeing the gravity of the situation.

Newton is Masurkar’s (b. 1981) second feature. It has almost nothing in common with the Hindi mainstream of Bollywood musicals. It’s an acerbic political satire with dark humor. Nobody gets off clean in this mud wrestling show of politics. Even the protagonist is occasionally teetering on the brink of turning into an antihero.

Lately India has seen an increase of ethnic and religious violence. Nationalism is also rising. Everywhere, including festival screenings in Kerala, the national anthem is played before every movie and each and every one is obligated to stand up and listen.

Newton addresses a wide range of issues from corruption to the exploitation of tribal minorities. Despite its critical stance in an apparently hostile climate, it was very well liked by critics and audience alike. It seems to have been the voice of dissent in demand.

Still, it was a surprise that Newton was India’s official entry for the Oscars (but not nominated). An even bigger surprise is that it was the first Indian film to receive a grant of ten million Rupees (around 150 000 USD) from the Central Government.

For Western viewers, it may seem easy to laugh at the problems of politics in India. But in these days of Trumps and Brexits, Newton offers healthy lessons for everybody living in so-called democratic countries. And it’s damn funny.

Harri Römpötti 
Edited by Savina Petkova