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April 26, 2017
Tribeca Review: Newton

In Newton, director Amit Masurkar has created a finely tuned little movie that accomplishes the rare feat of satisfying precisely the parameters it sets for itself. It seems intuitively wrong to use the word “small” anywhere around the topic of India. Especially here, in a movie about the election. In the world’s largest democracy, this means that over 800 million voters are going to go to the polls to choose between six national parties.

Masurkar opens the movie showing a microcosm of Indian politics in the rally and fate of a strongman politician. He then introduces us to the hero of the movie, Newton (Rajkummar Rao), a Hindi-speaking, college-educated, idealist. His given name was Nutan, but due to a play on words that taunted him at school, he subtly switched it to an homage to the great physicist. Thus he aptly represents the elegant, early modern understanding of physics where action equals reaction and energy in a closed system cannot be lost. No subatomic particles or entanglement to complicate things.

Newton’s approach to life has the same sensibility: logical, elegant, intuitive. Do what’s right, do your duty. Newton is an office clerk who volunteers to run a polling station. He is sent to a region in the jungle, recently held by a Marxist guerilla, where 76 voters will report to him. After being helicoptered in, he is met by the commanding officer, Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathy), whose languorous pace and gentle bemusement is in direct opposition to Newton’s diligent attempts to get out the vote.

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Rao plays the lead role with a very gentle dollop of eccentricity. His blinks are too long, and his face hovers half a click away from a spacey smile. Just enough so that even if he is handsome, tall, and eloquent, he is ever so slightly off-beat. Pankaj Tripathy more than matches him, playing an officer who has long ago abandoned the rules for a more results-based approach to his duties. His menacing air is so subtle, you don’t watch him as the villain, but the viable counterpoint to Newton.

As it starts to become clear that none of the voters are going to show up, the central problem of the movie is presented. The action is set primarily in an abandoned building that they adapt into a polling station over the course of election day. Hence the contained scale referred to earlier. As it delves deeper into the limitations of the democratic process, its restraint is notable, and critical to its success.

Newton is an impressive balancing act: the robotic earnestness of its lead character is calibrated, the cynicism of the commanding officer is contained, the scale of the political battle is staid, and the comedy is cut into the tragedy with precision. The end result is neither vicious nor corny. It feels honest and surprisingly warm.

For more information on Newton click here.

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