2017 Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Amit V Masurkar (Newton)

tribeca-film-festival-2017-newton

“Newton” delivers a dark comedy about the vulnerable nature of Democracy and it’s execution.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is preparing for an election. With more than 800 million voters, this is a logistical puzzle of epic proportions. Newton is an idealistic young office clerk volunteering to be a poll worker. He’s keen to put his energy to good use and help his country. When he is presented with an opportunity to head up a dangerous polling station in the deepest jungle, which has been besieged by communist troops for decades, Newton eagerly jumps at the opportunity to prove his mettle.

We sat down with director Amit V Masurkar to talk about one of our favorite films at the Tribeca Film Festival, the fragility of democratic values all over the world, using humor in the dramatic topic of elections, the challenges of filmmaking in a conflict zone and more.

‘Newton” screened as part of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in its US Narrative Competition April 21 – 27 at various venues around New York City. Find more information on the film – HERE

How did the project start? Was it an idea, person you met, or the location?
I wanted to do something about democracy, the huge gap between what is practiced and what is written.The democratic principles are on one side and the way democracy is practiced is different. This gap was something I wanted to explore. I thought it would be interesting to set it on the day of the election in the poll booth since that is the time when every voter feels physically part of democracy, where you press a button and your voice has been heard. I made it in India as I’m from there, otherwise, it could’ve been set anywhere else in the world. I specifically chose Chhattisgarh because it’s in the middle of the country and unlike other parts of India, that want independence, this wasn’t the case in Chhattisgarh. Maoists don’t want independence, they are basically left-wing guerrillas, wanting to take over the government and make it into a communist country. This is a very far-fetched plan, it’s been happening for the last 30 years and hasn’t been successful. It was interesting to set it up there because each time during the election the same thing happens, Maoists say they’re not real elections, it’s a capitalistic government, and are against it. They tell people that they should not vote. So people who live in those areas are in constant trouble because the government wants to show that everything is normal, they have to show that the elections are happening and voters are participating. You see that in any conflict region, people participating in a large way as opposed to a place such as Bombay, very few go and vote, the rest of them don’t even bother. In conflict areas, if they don’t vote it means that they are against the government, so people have to. At the same time, Maoists issue threats to voters.

This is a very timely subject, manipulating elections. Were you trying to make a political statement?
Yes. It’s a political film. In fact today I saw that in India there was an attack and 24 policemen were killed. If you look at elections all over the world there is a feeling that somebody is manipulating them. You see in the USA the percentage being very close, 49 to 49% point something and suddenly someone wins; In North Korea, there are elections where one person wins with 99%. Elections are always a facade serving to legitimize someone who is in power, they don’t mean anything. People think they have their destiny in their own hands but they don’t.

Can you talk about the research process for “Newton”?
It was hard. There are so many distractions on the news about the things of Chhattisgarh that were reported. If you open the paper, unless 24 policemen died, it will never be on the front page, it will always be somewhere in the middle, where you hardly can see or find it. So people of other areas in India aren’t really aware. When I thought about the idea, I picked up all the books I could find, I met up with these authors, professors, human rights activists and journalists. I picked up a lot of contacts within Chhattisgarh. The first time I went was with my co-writer. We stayed in the conflict zone, met this young journalist and human rights activist who was a guide there. He took us to a so-called liberated zone which is a Maoist area and was advised not to go. We spoke to the cops before, so they didn’t think we were Maoists and told them we were filmmakers. They won’t harm you because neither of them wants to be in the bad books. A lot of the hard-core left-wing professors, journalists, and human rights activists report about abuses in the area, so the Maoists need to be in their good books. The police also don’t want to mess with anybody who is a civilian. The whole film was shot in the same area. It was pretty safe. I’m sure we were being watched but we were consciously avoiding unnecessary arguments, so even if people tried to engage us in a political discussion, we would avoid that and say we were just doing our job.

How did your background studies of history and engineering help in filmmaking?
I just studied Engineering for two years and was very bad at it. I really enjoyed history throughout my school years. It is something that helps me understand the context, even with this film. While we were researching for this film we went deep into the history of the people. It helped us understand how do you think about things etc. Despite you don’t see the way people think in the film, you see it in the background. Although I studied engineering for a short period of time, it teaches you how to navigate through things. When you are studying, you don’t end up reading the whole text. You have to understand the basics because the subject matters are so vast, so you have to be smart about how to go about it. Kind of helps you on set to think uncomplicatedly.

Why did you choose to do a dramedy?
I always thought of drama while I was writing the script. I have my background in sketch comedy. I did sketches for 2 1/2 years. When I pick up a newspaper and look at the headlines, I think of sketches. It took me almost 3 years to get this out of my head because everything I was writing turned out to be two pages, three pages. To write a longer script you need to stop thinking of punchlines. When it’s a serious topic it automatically gravitates towards humor and I think humor is a good way to connect with more people. If you make a serious film maybe not everyone would be interested in watching it, but if it’s funny, it’s easily digestible.

— Interview by Lia Fietz with additional text of TFF2017 programming.

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