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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Newton, Review: Gravity of the situation

Newton, Review: Gravity of the situation

Had he been alive in the modern period, the British scientist would have bagged multiple Nobel prizes for his pioneering work in Physics. As it happens, the film of the same name, not a biopic of Sir Isaac, rather about an idealist in the Indian bureaucracy, has been eliminated from the race for the Oscars.

A million or more Newtonians are feeling heart-broken that a film that they considered a breakthrough, and the best film made in India in recent times, will not be competing for the Academy Award. But they take great solace in the fact that such a film was even made, and that they lived to see it. Newton is a good film, without doubt. However, when weighing it in as Oscar material, one has to apply Newtonian standards. That is when it falls a little, but noticeably, short.

There have always been variations of the idealist hero in cinema around the world: the honest idealist, the incorruptible idealist, the angry idealist, the violent idealist, the just-do-my-job idealist, the by-the-book idealist, the duty-above-all-else idealist, the country-above-all-else idealist, the justice-for-all-idealist. In India too, we have had incarnations of the on-screen idealist. In most cases, this idealist was a policeman battling the underworld, as epitomised by Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer (high voltage action) and Om Puri in Ardh Satya (seething internalisation).

When the backdrop of the idealist moved to bureaucracy, we saw films like Satyakam (Dharmendra), and when he landed in the medical profession, it took shape as Tere Mere Sapne (Dev Anand, based on an A.J. Cronin novel). Zanjeer was a money spinner, and Ardh Satya an art-house hit, while the other two were dubbed flops. By the time Manoj Kumar made a film about the temptations of a clerk working in the Ministry of Defence, and called it Clerk, the romance had run out of the honest hero theme. To further seal genre’s fate, the treatment was taken to farcical lengths in Clerk, a film many regard as the worst they have ever seen, and a box-office nightmare.

Examples cited above are from 1969-89. Movies about honest cops and brave soldiers continue to be made by the dozen, but these are over-the-top action extravaganzas, and bear no comparison to Satyakam or Tere Mere Sapne. In 2017, as a country, India continues to feature among the highly corrupt nations of the world, but it is also battling several other socio-political problems, like border incidents involving China and Pakistan, violent resistance by the Maoists in several regions, and a bureaucracy that is heavily guilty of either non-performance or dereliction of duty. No one, or two, or twenty persons have ever changed the system, nor will they ever be able to do so—not because such crusaders lacked or lack the requisite will or grit, but because the system will either eliminate them or suck them in. Newton is one such character.

Writer-director Amit V. Masurkar and co-writer Mayank Tewaari give you one bit of back-story and one quirk to work with: named Nutan Kumar, our hero changes his name to Newton, because Nutan is also a female name (incidentally, new=nu in Hindi); the back story is just one scene, in which he refuses to marry a girl because she is under the legal age and poorly educated. That’s all you know about Newton, before we get into the thick of the plot. The rest of the film is about how Newton is drafted as a Presiding Officer, with a four-member team, stationed at a back-of-the-beyond polling booth, to supervise a parliamentary election. All of 76 strong, the electorate is not keen to vote, having been ‘advised’ by their revolutionary comrades to keep away. Being in the thick of Naxalite (armed extremist) territory, the election is to be conducted under the supervision of para-military police. In a series of developments, Newton’s obsessive compulsion to conduct the election makes him take on his uninterested-in-the-exercise armed escort, and get the villagers to exercise their franchise, which he holds as invaluable, in the world’s largest democracy.

Okay, so Masurkar and Tewaari’s Sulemani Keeda (2014), their first collaboration, had a few good laughs. Tewaari did okay as a co-writer too. That is when the reference must end. You would have to be exceptionally gifted to think or believe that these two gentlemen, who were both writers of sorts for some time before getting their film breaks, could join hands again to make something quite like Newton. I have this sneaking feeling that the daredevil idealist evolved out of a comedy sketch, and that Masurkar gave it away when he said to this writer a few days ago that he had toyed with naming his lead character Don Quixote before he settled for Newton. In that sense, Newton is no idealist or idol of sincerity. It’s in his DNA. He is charging at the windmill (system) not because it is coming in his way, rather because he was recruited for that job. Look at his acts, and listen to the interactions, between first him and the trainer, and then him and the Assistant Commandant. He holds no moral high-ground, nor is he a member of any Mensa club.

In the end, it is a clever act. Run the narrative in dead-pan style and use the abrupt cut to provide the answer to any dead-end situation. Take a highly sensitive thing like a parliamentary election in a life-threatening locale and put an election-above-all-else newbie in charge, at loggerheads with an Assistant Commandant, and you have a very serious film about several very serious issues. You call resistance fighters “Pakistan”, and nationalism surges. You remind viewers that democracy has survived in India amid such odds, and every Indian is proud, and to hammer it in, you bring in a foreign TV crew, escorted to the venue by a boastful Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police. You get a comic character to talk about the effects of televsiion veiwing and the advantages of learning English.

In just one scene, you highlight that marrying off minor girls is a social evil, as is depriving them of their education. As a follow-up, Newton’s father expresses disappointment that he will now not get the motor-cycle that would have come as dowry if he had married the minor. In another short scene, you show the audiences how civil officers make multiple excuses to avoid working in undesirable circumstances. In a climactic scene, to repeat that time and punctuality are of supreme importance, an idea that resonates with so many Indians who laugh off all delays as a result of “Indian Standard Time”.

Time and again, the proceedings, usually convincing and logical, stretch your imagination and wmake you wonder whether Newton is getting it right, yet you go with the flow, because motivation and intention are paramount, not execution. Initially, Masurkar might have thought of the subject as a black comedy, a Cuban satire on state bureaucracy or a derivative of the Office Office TV series, only to re-think the thrust and get enough past the crease to keep it in serious territory, out of farce area. It needed just that much tilt to end up being a (rip-roaring?) comedy, and he charts his course well. A film in the Sulemani Keeda mould would not get him the exposure and appreciation that Newton did. Having delved into amoral, sleeper genre, it was time to make what many call meaningful cinema. And this time around, he had the resources.

Rajkummar Rao is the man of the moment. His diminutive frame and poker-faced, ‘mumbly’ delivery make him an ideal Newton. Pankaj Tripathi (Nil Battey Sannata, Masaan, Bareilly ki Barfi) as Assistant Commandant Aatma Singh, shows little variation from his ad films persona. He usually does little, but does it well. Anjali Patil as Malko Netam, the teacher, fits the role personality/ethnic looks-wise. A With You Without You (SriLanka) hangover persists.

Raghubir Yadav as the comic relief member of the election posse, Loknath, gets it right, as almost always. Sadly, when the character just about begins to really entertain you, more serious things happen, truncating possibilities of some more genuine fun. As the DIG, Danish Hussain is slick and suave. Pistak Gond as the Village Patel (Headman) is obviously a non-actor, and the one scene which he steals has no direct contribution from him. Sanjay Mishra, in a special appearance as an Election Instructor, proves again that no role is beyond him. Fittingly, the core philosophy of the film is expounded in one scene featuring him and the recruit, Newton, where Newton come off as an egotist, not an idealist.

At 106 minutes, Newton has the right length. The ending is both abrupt and unremarkable, somewhat like, “We have said what we wanted to say, but how do we round it off?”

In India, we face and experience all the problems and issues that find place in the film. We might even have seen a collage of newspaper and TV reports, and not a work of fiction.

Idealists have not changed the world, and, to be fair, the protagonist changes nothing in the film. Yet he does end up shaking-up laissez faire mindsets that have been either reconciled or desensitised to the gravity of the situation.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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