The Moral Lessons from ‘Newton’

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Democracy is messy. Democracy is slow. Democracy is painful. And for most of India, democracy is often a novelty.

‘Newton’, a movie by Amit Masurkar, shows democracy in action in India, telling us the story of an election being conducted in a solitary polling booth in the Maoist heartland of Dandakaranya in Chhattisgarh. And in the process, it touches upon all the issues that plague Indian democracy – the disconnect between voters and leaders, lack of education and interest among citizens, disinterested bureaucrats, the gaping absence of rule of law and most of all, the fragile hold that the alien concept of democracy has on Indian psyche.

The story revolves around Newton Kumar, the eponymous titular character, a presiding officer of the polling booth whose responsibility is to ensure that the 72 registered voters in that booth get to vote in a free and fair manner. Newton is a young idealist and a dreamer, a stickler for the rules. He is honest, and righteous, to the point of being bone headed at times, and is also sincere to a fault. However, as it turns out, despite his best intentions, following the rule book becomes a rather difficult ask in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.

For getting democracy right in India is a humongous enterprise; even the most earnest of efforts can find it a hopelessly difficult nut to crack.

India is a massive, sprawling country with the population of a continent and the complexities of a few. For hundreds of years, its citizens have survived under foreign rulers and indigenous monarchs, oblivious to the concepts of elections, democracy, basic fundamental rights, or even the rule of law. Even today, vast swathes of the country live in conflict zones, in desperate poverty, without access to the basic rights and amenities that a western citizen takes for granted. For most of these people, the Indian administrative machinery just exists as an abstract theory.

To a casual observer, India remains a thriving democracy, but much of it is on paper. Elections are held on time, thanks to a fiercely independent Election Commission, one of the strongest institutions in the country. With time, elections have gradually become free and fair, even though allegations of ballot stuffing and electoral malpractices continue to be made. But even then, the whole idea of electoral democracy still remains a farce to vast portions of its population, for whom surviving every day is a struggle, and exercising the right to franchise is the last thing on their mind. The Indian democracy has more or less failed them, putting their names on the voters’ list, but writing them off entirely from the nation’s conscience.

Of course, there are other issues to contend with. For one, the Indian bureaucracy is notoriously corrupt and painfully slow. Lulled by the complacency of secure jobs, presented with no incentive to take any sort of risk, and steeped in a culture of doing nothing, Government service in India is where most ambitions go to die. There is a reason why the word ‘sarkari’ in India is thrown around as a derogatory term signifying something which is slow moving, or poor in quality, or lackadaisical in spirit.

Then there are the turf wars among the departments. Public service in India is done through a maze of bodies, with ill defined jurisdictions and staffed with personnel loathe to take responsibility and happy to throw the ball around. They operate in their own little silos, often taking a dim view of the work of others. Co-ordination among the departments for any sort of complex task is thus often a humongous job.

Finally, a lack of respect for law is ingrained in the Indian culture. Having for decades faced an oppressive and non-cooperative state, Indians have learnt how to cleverly work around the laws, seldom facing any major repercussion for doing so. For every system that exists on paper in India, there are hundreds of work arounds available. There are millions of people who have perfected the art of such work arounds, often doing it at a price for others. In fact, there is also a uniquely Indian name for this practice – ‘jugaad’.

‘Newton’ tackles all of these issues head on, and a few more. For example, there is a delightful little sequence which shows the language hierarchy in North India. Many of the local dialects in the Hindi heartland are gradually getting wiped out in the face of an officially sanctioned onslaught from Hindi. At the same time, Hindi has itself become a poor little cousin to English; knowing Hindi may still land you the Government job and help you scrape through, but in the pyramid of social standings, you will still remain a second class citizen until you attain fluency in English.

Despite its heavy message, ‘Newton’ treads lightly, often gently mocking its hero, for his name as well as his naive optimism and righteousness. The story is simple and threadbare – the most exciting part in the movie is in fact a presiding officer running around in the jungles with an electronic voting machine. But the movie is kept interesting largely through sharp, funny dialogues and two brilliantly sketched out characters in the form of local paramilitary chief Atma Singh and assistant polling officer Loknathji, played superbly by Pankaj Tripathi and Raghubir Yadav respectively. Both Atma Singh and Loknathji are veterans in their respective fields; years of experience have left with deep cynicism and their worldviews are often at odds with the hopeless optimism of Newton, thus providing for moments of genuine conflict.

But more than its social commentary, ‘Newton’ succeeds in portraying the virtues of an individual striving hard to make small changes, and how difficult it can be.

It is about the hopeless idealism of youth and the understated value of sincerity. It is about doing the best one can do, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is about sticking to the rule book and passing on to chance to cheat, even when no one is watching. It is about trying to change the system from within, one step at a time, instead of just cribbing about it. It is about doing your work and not worrying about the results. It is about how all of these can be so mundane (a lot of the movie has just four people sitting in a polling booth and nothing happening) and yet so rewarding.

And finally, it is about trying and failing and yet not losing your faith, the value of small steps taken in the right direction, and appreciating how tough change can be.

 

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