Amit Masurkar: Newton’s search for order in chaos
Writer-director Amit Masurkar on his new film, set in Maoist Chhattisgarh, which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival
Amit Masurkar’s debut feature film Sulemani Keeda (2014) was a likeable mumblecore film about two struggling screenwriters, set in suburban Mumbai. The subject and backdrop of his second film, Newton, is vastly different. It is about a clerk on election duty in the jungles of Chhattisgarh. Newton will premiere in the Forum section at the Berlin Film Festival, which will take place from 9-19 February. It will do the rounds of a few more film festivals before releasing in Indian theatres, tentatively by mid-year.
In an interview, Masurkar talks about the research and risk involved in his sophomore project, his Herzogian wish fulfilment and his search for authenticity. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about ‘Newton’. How and where did it begin?
It was 2013, when I was waiting for the post-production of Sulemani Keeda to begin. I was thinking what to do when just as an exercise I started typing random words on the computer. One of the words was constitution. I had never read the Constitution of India, so I downloaded the PDF and read up the preamble. It was so powerful. It makes you feel anybody who follows it can make the country really great. So where did it go wrong? Why does India have these problems? Yes, we are a large country and it’s difficult to do things. But I realized that the only day people feel powerful and really a part of the democratic process is election day: regardless of caste, gender, religion. I thought I should write a film on the day of election in a polling booth. But it will be even more interesting to set it in a conflict area, where there is a fierce opposition to the election, where an entity is asking for a boycott of the elections. There, it is even more important for the government to hold elections to show to the world, the media and the people that they have control. It could have been set in, say, Kashmir. But Chhattisgarh is in the heart of the country and the conflict there is not about independence from the nation. So I decided on it as the setting.
The movie is about a rookie clerk who gets election duty as a booth officer in a jungle in Chhattisgarh. He has the single-minded agenda of conducting free and fair voting despite the apathy of police officers and the looming fear of attacks from Maoists. Initially, nothing happens but then a lot starts happening.
You have got Drishyam Films as producer. Did your first film make it easier with getting funding?
I pitched it to two studios but nobody showed any interest. They said they didn’t want to make a film about politics, even though they had not read the script. They suggested we make something like Sulemani Keeda with a bigger budget. I met Manish Mundra and pitched the idea to him. He really liked it and said he will back it. That’s when I got Mayank Tewari, who played one of the leads in Sulemani Keeda, on board as a co-writer.
What kind of research did you need to do?
I started writing a basic script after reading up online. I was already aware of the situation there. I read Nandini Sundar’s Subalterns And Sovereigns: An Anthropological History Of Bastar, 1854-1996. I had read Rahul Pandita’s Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story Of India’s Maoist Movement that somebody had gifted me. Then Ilina Sen’s Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir. I read two or three other books that I didn’t like. I also read the Planning Commission report from 2008-09 on left-wing extremists. Then I wrote a rough draft of the script.
But research only gives you the information and perspectives. We needed to understand the multiple narratives in the story and the different points of view. We had to be sensitive to the core problem, which is the suffering of people who live in the jungle. That’s the message I wanted the film to have. The second thing was to write an interesting story. I kept working on it, got the scripts read by Nandini, Rahul, Ilina and some screenwriter friends for feedback. I had to balance it between my style, which is humour, and the urge to tell the real story. I was constantly aware of this in every scene: how people are being represented, the way we place the camera, who’s sitting, standing in which positions, what side of the frame he is looking at, the colours in the frame. All this is very important because certain colours, symbols subconsciously mean certain things to us.
‘Sulemani Keeda’ was practically made out of your parents’ and friends’ apartments in Mumbai. How challenging was it to shoot in the jungles of Chhattisgarh?
I have always wanted to shoot in a jungle, ever since I saw Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (1972). That was a big thing for me. We have this perception that people who live there are uncivilized. In fact, their “society” is superior to middle-class urban India. They respect the place they live in, there is comparatively more gender equality, they are less greedy, live fuller lives and are self-sufficient. That is generally the case with people who live close to nature.
We had to shoot the entire film without light. We had to use Arri Alexa XT (with Anamorphic lenses), an expensive proposition. It is impossible to use a generator in the jungle because it will make noise. Even if you keep the generator 2km away—for which you need a really long wire—you will hear a hum and we were shooting in sync sound. It’s a story of one day; the characters in the movie go into the jungle in the morning and come back by late afternoon. Maintaining continuity of light was very difficult because it rained during the shoot. It was March and the only place in India where it rained was there!
Genre wise, how would you describe the film?
It’s difficult to say. It’s not a comedy exactly. The humour is incidental and the subject is serious. Some may find elements of a thriller. I would call it a “dramedy”.
Did you have any films as reference in mind for ‘Newton’?
No. When I pitched it to Manish (Mundra), he had asked for a reference. I looked around but couldn’t find any. Same with my director of photography—I couldn’t have referred to him an Apocalypse Now or Aguirre because the jungles of those regions look very different. All the references were from real life. A journalist friend Javed Iqbal helped me with some unpublished stills he had taken. These were references for my art department to construct a Gondi village. Once, Mayank and I just walked across the Indravati river into the “liberated zone” where government officials and the paramilitary aren’t allowed, but teachers and activists can go freely. We went to one such place called Narayanpur and collected a lot of images and first-hand references.
You worked mostly with non-professional actors in your first film. In ‘Newton’, you have actors such as Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathy, Anjali Patil and Raghubir Yadav.
Sulemani Keeda was actually the first time I was directing actors, let alone non-professional actors. Because before that I had only made some non-fiction corporate and NGO films. The actors chosen in Newton suited the characters. Rajkummar Rao has a malleable quality that makes you feel for the character, even though he does certain things that have repercussions. We also got people from the IPTAs (Indian People’s Theatre Associations) in Raigarh and Raipur; that is a huge pool of talent.
But for certain roles, we felt it’s better to cast non-actors; they don’t come with baggage. We worked with many people from the Gond community. We didn’t have to work much on them much except an ice-breaking workshop, where we all sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. Each of us did something; some people danced, some said jokes. They were good, they knew what they were doing. Even for the roles of the constables,we got some who were writing police exams and have been to the National Cadet Corps. But we got this army guy who, along with the paramilitary supervisor, would train them how to walk in the jungle. Now, according to the procedure manual, they are supposed to be in savdhaan mode when on guard. But in reality, they slouch with their guns a lot while travelling in the jungle. We worked on a lot of things like these to make it authentic.
Like ‘Sulemani Keeda’, ‘Newton’ is an intriguing title.
People judge the book by the cover. Newton is a title you don’t forget. Everybody has read about him in school, there is a ring to it. And then you see the poster with a guy in a helmet, so there’s a mystery. I got it from a random person’s name on Facebook and kept it as a working title. But, as we discovered later, it also suited the film. Like Newton’s law, Rajkummar Rao’s character tries to find order in chaos.
Social dramas set in rural India
Bhuvan Shome (1969)
Satyajit Ray famously described Mrinal Sen’s film as “Big, Bad Bureaucrat reformed by a rustic belle”. The eponymous protagonist (Utpal Dutt) is a middle-aged widower and a strict, upright Bengali railway officer who goes on a duck-hunting holiday in Gujarat. There he is transformed by an encounter with a village lady (Suhasini Mulay). Today, Bhuvan Shome is considered one of the films that started a new wave in Indian cinema.
A brothel, run by the fiery Rukmini Bai (Shabana Azmi), is moved outside the city under political pressure. Its new location, near a dargah, boosts its clientele. More irony follows in this film directed by Shyam Benegal, which also has Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri in the cast.
Welcome To Sajjanpur (2008)
In a village with unique characters that communicate with the outside world through letters, Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade) has the power to change fates. He is an unemployed graduate who makes a living by writing letters for the illiterate but aspires to be a novelist. It is one of Benegal’s later films.
Peepli (Live) (2010)
Former NDTV journalist Anusha Rizvi’s debut film was a commentary on the by-products of a shining, new India: the farmer suicides and the broadcasting media’s sensational style of coverage. It centres on Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a poor farmer with a family to support who decides the best way to relieve himself of debts is suicide.
Dekh Tamasha Dekh (2014)
A poor man is crushed to death by the giant-size hoarding of a local politician (Satish Kaushik) in Feroz Abbas Khan’s film, set in a coastal town of Maharashtra. Soon, it comes to light that he is a Hindu who converted to Islam. Chaos ensues.
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