January 29, 2017 11:31:03 pm
His characters always seem to bear curious names. The leads in Amit Masurkar’s directorial debut, Sulemani Keeda, were called Dulal and Mainak. This time, he has named the protagonist Newton. He blames it on his inability to come up with “appropriate” names. “It’s tough, like naming a child or a cat,” says Masurkar. While his choice for a moniker for his two-month-old cat, Maushi, hints at his own quintessential Mumbai upbringing, the names of the characters seem to rid them of the burden of ethnic or caste identity. That may especially be true for Newton, played by Rajkummar Rao in the titular film, which premieres in the Forum section at the Berlin Film Festival next month, for it is set against the backdrop of Maoist activities in Chhattisgarh.
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The film, says the director, captures a day in the life of an honest election officer trying to conduct free and fair elections at his polling booth. “Just that the polling booth happens to be in an area that has recently been freed from Maoist hold by the government,” points out Masurkar. The government wants to ensure the elections take place in order to establish power whereas it’s in interest of the Maoists that the polling is disrupted. What Newton witnesses on that one day, the way in which it displaces his idealism and how he copes with it, makes the satire.
The idea takes root in the word “democracy”, which popped up while Masurkar was one day randomly searching “constitution” on the internet. “Today, when the core concept of ‘democracy’ is getting diluted across the world, it is an interesting subject to explore,” says the 35-year-old.
“Chhattisgarh makes for an apt backdrop — where democracy exists in theory but not in practice. In a place like this, only on election day do its people feel they have a voice, or physically feel like they are part of a democracy. I wanted to explore what democracy looks like from inside a polling booth in such an area,” he says.
The first draft of the film came together in 20 days. Masurkar knew it lacked the depth of research. Once Manish Mundhra’s Drishyam Films decided to back the project, he brought on board former journalist and actor Mayank Tiwari, his Mainak in Sulemani Keeda, as the co-writer for Newton, and began to dig into the subject. They travelled to Delhi, met professors, social scientists, human rights activists, journalists and other professionals who could share insights on the Maoist movement as well as the electoral process. They followed this up with a visit to Chhattisgarh, where they also engaged with locals, adivasis, cops, surrendered Maoists and former CRPF officials.
One of Masurkar’s greatest resource was Mangal Kunjam, a local stringer. “Kunjam is young with great integrity towards his work. His clarity on the subjects of Maoists, government control in the state as well as the battle over land for mining and adivasi issues helped in the shaping of the film,” says the director, who shot the film in Chhattisgarh’s mining town of Dalli Rajhara for 37 days.
Kunjam not only gave extensive feedback on the script — without pushing his ideology — but also became the go-to guy on cultural aspects of the portrayal, such as the design of the houses, people’s behaviour, their understanding of elections and so on. Alongside, the makers had as consultants former army personnel to train the actors playing CRPF officials, a Gondi language expert and so on, in order to retain the authenticity of the milieu being projected on screen.
All these insights, says Masurkar, exposed him to the voices that often go unheard in such conflict areas, that of the common man, the adivasi who is caught between development and their old way — and the only one they know — of life. This, in turn, helped the director add nuances to the film, in the form of humour or characterisation.
Rao was a natural choice because “there is a lot of Newton in Rajkummar, in his sincerity and innocence”. The film also has Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil, Danish Husain and Raghubir Yadav in key roles. However, a large part of the cast comprises locals, some of whom had never watched a film in their lives.
Newton is a massive departure from Masurkar’s debut, a numblecore film on two aspiring screenwriters. However, humour remains integral to the work of this director, who started his career writing scripts for the stand-up Hindi TV show, The Great Indian Laughter Challenge.
While he accepts that the small screen medium, despite its reach, remains limiting, he hasn’t entirely abandoned it. Masurkar says, “Whenever I feel my bank balance is coming down to four digits, I sign up to direct a few episodes. It allows me to experiment with angles, play with the camera and manage a crew. All that came in handy while shooting for Newton with 170-odd people in the middle of a Chhattisgarh jungle.”
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