Interview: Amit Masurkar on the Politics of India’s Oscar submission ‘Newton’

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With a pair of well-received films under his belt, writer-director Amit Masurkar is one of the most promising talents in India’s thriving film industry. In his sophomore effort “Newton,” his confident voice is evident as he incisively examines his country’s democracy. After a successful run on the festival circuit, the film has now been chosen as India’s official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. In celebration of this honor, I recently spoke with Masurkar to discuss the fascinating politics he depicts as well as the pleasant surprise of the Oscar selection. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Shane Slater: “Newton” isn’t the first Indian film to take a critical look at politics and government. What new perspective were you trying to explore with this film?

Amit Masurkar: My main intention was to look at electoral politics, the actual mechanisms and logistics of elections. In India, we’re always aware of the fact that we are the world’s largest democracy. Almost 800 million people are eligible to vote and we have 9 million polling booths all over the country. In 2014, 5 billion dollars were spent on the elections. So, these are the kind of statistics we are all aware of in India. And we’re aware of the fact that elections take place in the most difficult geographical locations like the island of Nicobar. If you look at the stories that come out during elections, about the way elections are being conducted, it’s mind-boggling.

I wanted to do something about this because even though the elections happen, there’s still a big gap between the democratic principles and the way democracy functions. So these are three different things. Elections, democratic principles and the reality. I wanted to explore the gap between these three.

SS: Were you already familiar with the rural culture being depicted in this film?

AM: Yeah, my mother is from a small town. So I’ve been travelling a lot in India since childhood. Before I started writing this particular film, I’d never been to Chhattisgarh, the area we are showing in the film. First, I read about the history of that place, the history of the conflict. I had to read about the politics, reports from the government, books by activists. And then I started meeting them. The third stage was actually travelling to these areas and meeting people. So we repeatedly went to Chhattisgarh for a period of time and we ended up meeting a lot of people who lived in those areas, people who were actively involved. Activists, lawyers, police personnel, Maoists, local voters. So it’s their lived experience that came into this film.

SS: Did you cast some of these local persons, or were they actors?

AM: Apart from 6 or 7 actors from Mumbai, the rest of the crew was all local. My casting director Romil Modi had to audition more than 1000 people to cast all these actors. So everybody was a first-time actor. The people who played the voters, police personnel. Most of them are playing a version of themselves. They are playing characters that are very close to their real lives. Which is why we didn’t have to do any workshops. It was easy for us because all the actors who were cast knew their roles perfectly well.

SS: Did you get a sense of whether their involvement in the film affected their views on democracy?

AM: Their views on democracy are very refined. They’re very aware of the problem. Basic rights are not being honored. Everything is there in paper. They are protected by laws, the constitution of the country. But in practice, it’s not implemented. People are aware of that to varying degrees, depending on their exposure and how politically aware they are and their education. So it’s a spectrum.

With respect to these actors, we did show them the film. We ran it in their local theaters for a week and we had a great response. The feedback I got was that they really enjoyed the film and that the story was being watched all over India, because we had released it commercially. The messages I got were all really positive.

SS: You have these non-actors and in the lead role you have a more established actor in Rajkummar Rao. How did he get involved?

AM: The producer Manish Mundra recommended Rajkummar. When I showed him the script there was no actor attached. Rajkummar is one of the shining names of Hindi cinema. He’s doing a lot of very good work. So the moment Manish suggested his name I was very happy. It was quite an easy process, because he knew him personally and I had already worked with Raj in the past. So the script was sent to him and he just took a couple of days to respond back.

SS: The film’s tone is different from the popular “masala” Hindi films. What inspired your style of filmmaking?

AM: I come from a sketch comedy background. I’ve worked on a very popular Indian show called “The Great Indian Comedy Show”. So I’m exposed to the best sketch comedy and stand-up routines. My writing style is maybe because of this early training. I actually have to cut down on jokes because I don’t want it to be funny. But that’s my actual style of writing. Humor does help, it’s like a bitter pill. You sugarcoat it and eat it. It helps you reach out with serious subjects to a general audience who may not have an interest in watching a film with a serious tone. So it did very well commercially in India. The reason was this humor and its accessibility. And it wasn’t preachy.

SS: India releases so many films each year and in different languages. Were you surprised when “Newton” was selected for the Oscars?

AM: Yeah, it came as a surprise because somebody in the office had submitted it and I wasn’t aware. I got a call from a journalist in the morning, congratulating me and asking for a quote. I wasn’t very sure, so I told him to let me check with my team and I’d get back. So that’s how I found out. It’s a great honor and a great opportunity to reach out to more people.

SS: This is just your second feature film. Are there any topics you’d particularly like to explore in the future?

AM: I’m generally interested in ideas that are progressive. I want to continue with the style of mixing humor with serious subjects. I’m interested in films that have some politics. It may not be overtly political, but I believe that the politics shows in every film even if you don’t want it to. Making apolitical films is a political statement. And I want to be conscious of the politics I’m putting in my films.

“Newton” is the Indian submission for the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.