September 6, 2017 / 10:28 AM / in a year

Q&A: Film-maker Amit Masurkar on 'Newton' and Indian democracy

Amit Masurkar's second film puts the spotlight on the election process in the Indian heartland, a subject rarely tackled by film-makers in the world's largest democracy.

Handout photo of film-maker Amit Masurkar

In "Newton", the eponymous protagonist faces the threat of Maoist rebels and indifferent officials as he helps conduct elections in a remote jungle in Chhattisgarh.

The film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, opens in Indian cinemas this month.

Masurkar, who made his debut with the 2014 indie comedy "Sulemani Keeda", spoke to Reuters about the difficulties of filming in the jungle and what he learnt about Indian democracy.

Q: Where did the idea for ‘Newton’ come from?

A: I have always been interested in conflicts and history and I was thinking of doing something around democracy. I was brainstorming and generally typing words - constitution, electronic voting machines, etc. and I realized there was a story there. I kept exploring it and a story kept forming. Once the film got greenlit, I got a writer, Mayank Tewari, to help me out. We went to Chhattisgarh, did some research and kept writing.

Q: Any reason why you wanted to base this film in Chhattisgarh?

A: Chhattisgarh is situated in the heart of the country and yet we don't know too much about it. Also, this film is about elections and Naxalites (Maoist rebels) are opposed to elections. So that leads to a natural conflict in the story. You have this team of volunteers going into the jungle to conduct elections and the voters are Gondi locals who are already disenfranchised. The opposing force is dead against elections and they want to overthrow the government. All this meant that this was the best place to set the film.

Q: Was it difficult to build a film around concepts like democracy and franchise?

A: There is a lot of drama that plays out at the ground level and the way an election is conducted in these areas. Like election officials are sent by helicopters, they are protected by forest officers and there is always the danger of an attack. A lot of times, elections are not conducted or there are malpractices. I used to watch this on the news and thought this would be quite an adventure. Especially for someone who has spent his life at a desk job, this would be the highlight of his career, to conduct elections in places like this.

Q: Can you talk about the actual filming? Were there any difficulties shooting in a remote village in Chhattisgarh?

A: Our shooting budget was quite tight - it was only 5 crore rupees (50 million rupees or $780,000). We shot it in 37 days and shooting in the jungle was a new experience for all of us. We didn’t have the luxury of shooting on set, with lights and all that. We had a decent-sized crew and lots of actors, but everyone had to be very efficient because shooting time was limited to daylight.

We shot near this town called Dalli Rajhara. We were initially supposed to shoot in a different location near Raipur, but at the last moment the forest officer who was supposed to give us permission got arrested on a corruption charge. There was nobody to sign the papers. We were forced to change our location to Dalli Rajhara, which was actually closer to the Naxalite-controlled jungles. We spoke to people and realized that police and Maoists don't really bother film-makers. They don't take Bollywood that seriously.

Q: Did you learn anything about Indian democracy or the election system during the making of this film?

A: I am a Mumbai guy and I knew nothing about Chhattisgarh and I got to learn about a whole new culture. You realize you live in such a cocoon in Mumbai. We aren’t really exposed to how things work in the interiors.

Q: But does democracy work out there?

A: It’s difficult to answer. We all know we are not all treated equally. It works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, the film isn’t really getting into the democracy and whether it works or not. It is about human nature. We might talk about lofty ideals but at the end of the day, the people who are supposed to guard those ideals and enforce them, it is also about them. It is about how power and authority changes you.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan; The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

Handout photo of film-maker Amit Masurkar
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