Newton’s Last Discovery; Bollywood’s dark hit comedy features a bureaucrat lost in India’s political jungles.

Rajkummar Rao stars as the title character in "Newton." (Courtesy Drishyam Films)

Rajkummar Rao stars as the title character in “Newton.” (Courtesy Drishyam Films)

This year, India sent a war movie to the Academy Awards, though the prize jury may not have realized it.

On its surface, the small-budget sleeper hit Newton is a wry, tightly wound comedy about the absurdities of Indian democracy. It may seem chiefly notable for breaking out of the shallow, conservative mold of mainstream Indian cinema. But its odd-man-out story — about a government clerk struggling to conduct an election deep in the heart of a central Indian jungle — doesn’t flinch from exposing the costs of India’s long counterinsurgency against its ongoing 50-year-old Maoist rebellion.

Newton was a good choice for the Oscars’s foreign-language film category: It should speak to audiences in democracies everywhere that are experiencing crises of self-belief. But it is also a bold choice for the Film Federation of India to send abroad — particularly at a moment when the mood of the nation, encouraged by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, tends toward thin-skinned nationalist sentimentality.

One of the speculations laid to rest by its decision was that selectors might choose, instead, to send 2017’s nationwide blockbuster Baahubali 2, a splashy fantasy about a muscular Hindu hero who reclaims his kingdom from corrupt rivals trying to cheat him of his patrimony. That reverie, complete with barbarian enemies and scheming palace traitors, straightforwardly plays on the desire to redeem the nation from an imagined history of victimhood.

Such a sentiment could not be more different than that of Newton, which questions some of Indian moviegoers’ most cherished beliefs. In a film industry happy to produce films like Baahubali that leave the status quo unperturbed, it strikes a rare note.

Co-written by two young screenwriters, Mayank Tewari and Amit Masurkar, and directed by Masurkar — whose only previous feature was Sulemani Keeda, a ditzy comedy about life in the film industry — Newton is set during a parliamentary election in the ancient forest that covers the central Indian region of Bastar. It tracks election day at a booth run by a petty bureaucrat on his first assignment, watched over by a protective detail of soldiers with hooded eyes and ready fists.

The protagonist, Newton Kumar — who, aspiring to leave behind his embarrassingly feminized birth name, Nutan, chooses to call himself after the great English scientist — is an upstanding young person from somewhere in the Hindi-speaking heartland. He is sent to oversee the fictional village of Kondanar, a tiny community of 76 tribal voters known as adivasis, or “first dwellers,” a term for indigenous Indian people. Few of them even understand Newton’s language, much less his intentions. The adivasis live under the twin shadows of occupying forces: the ultra-left Naxalites, waging a violent war against the Indian state, and the repressive and humiliating presence of Indian counterinsurgency forces.

Newton’s backstory may seem better suited to a Ken Burnsian national reckoning than an absurdist satire. In May 1967, poor peasants who took up arms against their landlords — the latter swiftly backed by the heft of state authorities — in a village in West Bengal called Naxalbari, began a left-wing revolt that soon aimed to overthrow the whole Indian state. This rebellion reached deep into central and eastern India—particularly its mineral-rich, thickly forested, poorly administered districts — and has simmered more or less constantly ever since.

For decades, the ranks of armed leftists fighting in jungles swelled with local recruits; some volunteered in desperation, others under duress. Over the last decade, the fight between rebels and the state has been led by, respectively, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), founded in 2004, and armed paramilitary forces, including the dreaded Salwa Judum militia.

The Salwa Judum, staffed largely by local tribal youth, was the regional authorities’ attempt at gaining home-field advantage in a part of the country that has seemed dangerous and foreign to the mainland since classical times. Its bloody clashes with guerrillas has resulted in widespread collateral damage, especially during the early months of Operation Green Hunt, an aggressive counterinsurgency operation that began to sweep the area in late 2009.

The article appeared in the Foreign Policy magazine on 16/1/2018'
Foreign Policy

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