One of the lesser-known facts about me (which I am wholly proud of) is that I managed to secure a perfect 100 in Social Studies in my 10th standard exams. My affinity for the workings of the world past and present was palpable from a young age. One of the most seminal debates I had with my peers and teachers was about how democracy became ubiquitously accepted as the way of the free world. The primary hang-up in my young mind was I could not be easily convinced that dictatorships, monarchies, communism, socialism etc. fell by the wayside en route to accepting democracy as the law of the land.
During one of these debates, one of my teachers once uttered a statement that punctuated her argument to a tee and has rung true with me since. It went: "Democracy is the only system of governing that remained after all other options were deemed futile by the citizens being governed." Such an apt argument that was when truly deconstructed. While I can't go into her justifications in detail, the deftness of her words made me question my socio-political beliefs to their minutia, which is something I do to the present day.
So when I saw Nutan Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) being slyly admonished by his teacher for his strict adherence to the government's principles, I was in equal parts amused and intrigued. Nutan Kumar (who retitles himself Newton Kumar) is a simple servant of India's government, lost in the massive expanse of Chattisgarh, trying to perform his duty to perfection without ever paying heed to the social implications, or lack of thereof, of his line of work.
Kumar is assigned the task of procuring votes for the Lok Sabha election from the citizens of two remote villages tucked away in the Maoist/Communist insurgent jungles of Chattisgarh. The magic number of voters Newton, his team and the CRPF protecting them are after is 76 - a number of people whose opinions would not qualify to be even a blip on the radar of the world's largest democracy. However, with undeterred resolve and bolstered by a police chief with an ulterior motive (of being interviewed by a foreign journalist), Kumar traverses the harsh bullet-studded landscapes, sets up a polling booth in a dilapidated school, and patiently waits till 3 in the PM for the registered voters of the community as CRPF officer Aatma (Pankaj Tripathi) and his battalion subtly advise them against it with unflappable fervour.
Cinema has a way of making the truly expansive seem conceivable and the wholly insignificant seem magniloquent - the artists who conceive of these scenarios while painstakingly etching them on screen need commendation on a job done well, even if it is on a small scale. The movie Newton draws parallels with its main character in more ways than one. While I'd wholly encourage most readers to watch the movie for themselves and apply their thoughts onto it, a base level of symbolism the film carries with it is as follows.
The film and its lead are consummate underdogs who are punching above their weight in a world devoid of time or patience for their idealistic world views. While there is a small number of folks who support their steadfast work at being umpires and keeping the standards high, most of us bought tickets to watch the batsmen smash sixes and the bowlers demolish some timber. This sentiment, while cause for humour through the film's runtime, still works as painful reminder of the lack of patience the population at large has for people like Newton as the final scene comes to the fore. Newton's long-lost acquaintance commending him on his award for punctuality while simultaneously being miffed that he insists on working the last 5 minutes of his shift accurately paints a picture of the contradictions we put ourselves through on a daily basis when dealing with government employees, pop-culture or otherwise.
Carrying electronic voting machines, the sanctity of democracy and this film on his seemingly frail shoulders is the spell-binding Rajkummar Rao. As I've mentioned before, Rao and critics' darling Pankaj Tripathi have long since exhausted my vocabulary of superlatives with their grounded performances which tug at the audience's heartstrings while never forgetting to keep them entertained with a unique concoction of humour and earnestness.
Absorbing the lush green and near metronomic ambience a jungle exudes are the supporting cast of characters whose distinct personalities, ranging from officials with apathy for the locals to polling booth employees who amuse each other with stories of the Ramayana, never take away from the quirky nature of the film but only add to its sensibilities.
A film like Newton makes itself a hard-sell for a mass audience. Despite never abandoning its subtlety or light tone, its portrayal of how people in power are too busy keeping themselves there to ever truly care about the plight of a nation or its people while people with an idealistic worldview lack the nuanced articulation required to truly mend the minds of a disenfranchised population, cannot help but disturb.
Indeed, the movie's sobering themes, its portrayal of apathy for the state of the Indian democracy, and the reckless insensitivity portrayed for the plight of the brave men and women of the CRPF brigade and the downtrodden folk of the Adivasi community all act as stark reminders of the privileged existence most of us city folk lead. Even as our 24-hour news channels indignantly scream about the loss of lives of innocent jawans or the state of panic citizens find themselves in as their basic human rights are trampled upon, the unshakable feeling that there are only a few members of society who are truly capable of facilitating change becomes wholly apparent. A change that requires generations to materialise because the men and women who truly care about and are capable of facilitating it are few and far between, and in a country of over a billion people, their work requires time to percolate.