AFI Film Review: ‘Newton’ is a Deep, Timely, and Universal Entry from India

0
Rajkummar Rao in "Newton"

2017 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: India’s thriving film industry is known for glorious colors, plot lines that rival the wackiest of telenovelas, and, of course, random dance sequences. At least, that’s what audiences have come to expect from a good Bollywood movie.

And that describes everything that India’s official Foreign Language Film submission is not.

Newton” is not flashy or silly. It is rarely funny at all. And there is certainly no dancing. It is the story of Nutan Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), a recent college graduate who changed the spelling of his name to Newton because of a fondness for gravity.

Now working for the government, Newton volunteers as a poll worker for the upcoming national election. Not only is India densely populated, it is large in area and many places are difficult to access. But Newton finds himself supervising a polling location in a remote part of the jungle in the middle of the country. It is an area under constant threat of violence from Maoists, guerrilla soldiers that have been fighting the Indian government for decades.

Newton and his team are accompanied by soldiers to the polling location, where they are joined by a local woman. They set up their one polling booth in an abandoned school in a village that was burned by the government. And then they sit and wait for the 76 registered voters from two neighboring villages.

Rajkummar Rao delivers a solid performance as Newton. He is a man who follows the rules. Everything must be in order and Rao establishes that trait without taking it too far. He is pleasant and likable. And his love of gravity as the great equalizer fits with his respect to people. It is sincere and honest. Whether he is talking to an elected official and his international journalist sidekick, or an uneducated villager that doesn’t understand the concept of voting, Newton treats everyone with respect.

Also delightful to watch are the supporting actors, particularly Pankaj Tripathi, Anjali Patil, and Raghuvir Yadav. Each plays an important part of the team and each actor is careful to avoid becoming a caricature. Tripathi plays the commander of their protecting military unit. Patil is the beautiful teacher and potential love interest. And Yadav is the old man with the long local history who does his job while explaining why it’s all irrelevant anyway.

The one problem “Newton” suffers is that it is tonally inconsistent. Sometimes it is tense and dramatic. Other times it seems to take a lighter approach to its serious subject matter. While this could normally be chalked up to the “lost in translation” argument, those out-of-place lighter moments are punctuated by matching score. At one point, an intense moment during a guerrilla ambush jumps from showing the volunteers evacuating the precinct under machine gun fire, to filler shots of the abandoned station, with the music changing to something almost whimsical. And then it jumps back to the volunteers fleeing through the jungle.

But those inconsistencies don’t fully distract from the gravity of what “Newton” is really about. Through the eyes of one rule-abiding government employee, we see the juxtaposition of government corruption and the appearance of equality mingled with citizens who are anxiously engaged in fighting for democracy.

It is a theme more universal, perhaps, than even the filmmakers intended.

“Newton” does not currently have distribution in the US.

GRADE: (★★★)

Check out the newest Oscar Predictions and see where “NEWTON” ranks!

CLICK THE CATEGORY TO SEE THE OSCAR PREDICTIONS:

MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |