Newton is in the headlines for two distinct reasons. One is the phenomenal box-office and critical success and the other is the allegation of plagiarism. On one hand, the movie world is celebrating India’s decision to choose Newton as its official representative at the Oscars. On the other, there’s concern regarding the similarities between Amit Masurkar’s film and an Iranian movie called Secret Ballot (2001). Addressing the plagiarism issue Amit says, “I haven’t watched Secret Ballot. I’ve only heard about it.” He continues further, “Newton has gone to so many international film festivals where the programmers and organisers have watched both films. Honestly, I don’t know what the critics’ intentions were when this issue was brought up.” He points out that the makers of Secret Ballot have issued a letter clarifying the matter. He adds, “Now it doesn’t matter who’s saying what.”
He’s ecstatic that Newton has been chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars this year. “I’m happy it was chosen at a time when it was running in the theatres so that people could go and watch it,” he says.He insists his film is inspired by real people, events and situations. “There’s a reality outside Mumbai, which you will only know when you visit places like Bastar and Chattisgarh,” he says. While developing the idea of Newton, his co-writer Mayank Tiwari and Amit went to Chhattisgarh. “We met Adivasi activists, lawyers, surrendered Naxalites there. We went to CRPF camps, villages and deep inside the jungles where people don’t venture. We met election officials, right from the volunteers to the election commission itself,” he says of the extensive research. He says, Newton is a film about the experiences and the recollections of all the people they met. Every line in the film has an insight. It’s not written randomly or just for comic effect. The story was written after a lot of research, a lot of thinking and a lot of love he informs. “Anyone who loves our country and our people will connect with Newton,” he says.
The film has been lauded for its subliminal storytelling and the deep insights on political machinations. Amit maintains it’s not a tough film to grasp. “It’s worked well in small-towns. I’ve noticed that middle-aged viewers are also enjoying this film,” he says. He’s particularly delighted that few have compared it to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam (1969).
Amit always wanted to make a political film. Back in 2009 he’d even written a film about a politician’s life. But that script never saw the light of day. “There was always a keeda to make a political film. One afternoon, I was randomly typing words on a blank computer screen. I wrote down words like constitution, election, electronic voting machine…That’s where the journey of Newton began,” he says.
He read many interesting articles on the elections being conducted in Arunachal Pradesh, near the Indo-China border and on an island in Andaman Nicobar, where a polling booth is installed every election for just one voter. “I was wondering where to set the story though. Then I read a book called Hello Bastar by Rahul Pandita. That gave me some interesting ideas,” he says.
Newton was shot over 37 days in and around Dalli Rajhara in Chattisgarh, a cosmopolitan mining township of the Bhilai Steel Plant. The location was surrounded by tribal villages on the outskirts. “Chhattisgarh’s not the most popular place to shoot a mainstream film. The violence and tension in the area wards off filmmakers. There’s absolutely no infrastructure to help shoot a feature,” he maintains. The biggest hurdle was to cast the additional actors. Amit and his team had to rope in the local tribals for the smaller roles.
He reveals Rajkummar Rao was always the first choice for the film. “Raj looks young, he has a sincere personality and he’s exactly like Newton in real life. He also has a good sense of humour. We needed an actor with good comic timing,” says he. Amit was inspired by Isaac Newton’s life, which is why he named his film’s character after the scientist/inventor. He reveals, “Sir Isaac Newton had a one-track mind. At a time when the Church persecuted scientists, his quest for truth and scientific explanations was inspirational. My film’s character isn’t a genius but within the confines of the bureaucracy, he considers himself as relevant as Newton.” He maintains his film is an ode to the Election Commission of India that works so hard to conduct elections in a country as diverse as ours. “There are many people like Newton who work hard, which is why governments change, which is why India sees such a largely fair election process.”
Despite the brilliant writing, Newton wasn’t an easy film to make. The studio system just couldn’t wrap its head around this political satire. Amit reveals that he never even got a chance to narrate the script to the studios. He smiles, “The moment the executives heard the word ‘politics’ they’d reject the idea. They would ask me to make a breezy film like my first feature Suleimani Keeda.” Masurkar’s first film was made on a wafer-thin budget. Most of the cast comprised Amit’s friends and colleagues. It was appreciated by the critics but it had a limited release back in 2013. Suleimani Keeda has become a cult hit online though. The studios wanted Amit to emulate the situational comedy of Suleimani Keeda. Luckily, Amit ran into Manish Mundra, who’d produced small gems like Ankhon Dekhi and Masaan. Manish’s Drishyam Films got Newton on the road. The first impressions were garnered at the festival circuit. They met Meenakshi Shetty, who views films for the Berlin Film Festival. She liked it and the film was programmed for the Berlinale.
Then other festivals started inviting them. Around that time Aanand L Rai heard about Newton and he saw a clip of the film on Rajkummar Rao’s phone. He found it interesting and called Amit, who had assisted Rai during his television days. “He’s a lovable and an encouraging person. But I was surprised he remembered me and he wanted to watch Newton. After watching the film, he insisted on a wide release. Once Aanand sir came on board the exhibitors showed confidence. We got the good shows,” reveals Amit.
Amit has a theory as to why the smaller films have been a better business proposition this year than big-ticket releases. He points to a paradigm shift in the way viewers are influencing the filmmaking process. “Everyone wants something different, something new. This year big films haven’t done too well. Yet smaller releases like Newton, Hindi Medium and Bareilly Ki Barfi have scored big. It’s because the audience is looking for good stories. Aanand L Rai is making something new with Shah Rukh Khan. The film industry has to make extra efforts to get the masses into the theatres now,” he says. He believes SRK, Aanand L Rai, Anurag Kashyap, Manish Mundra and Aamir Khan are on
the right track.
He maintains he made both his feature films purely to satisfy his creative urge. “I’m just trying to tell stories that excite me.” Newton has sparked a dialogue on democracy and the elections in the country. Amit acknowledges the power of cinema. But he’s aware that cinema alone cannot change society. Though he does believe artistic expressions like poetry, music, painting… played a big part in the Independence movement.He explains the effect of cinema saying, “People change their hairstyles according to what their favourite actors are sporting. Cinema can induce a change in a person. It can inspire a mind to think.” He dreams of making better cinema and telling invigorating tales with his favourite stars like Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma, Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut. Now that’s some goal worth pursuing.