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Why Newton could overrule Murphy’s Law at the Oscars

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-09-2017 Uday Bhatia

Mumbai: The announcement of India’s official entry to the Oscars usually results in a blizzard of critical disagreement. But not this year.

By the time it released on Friday, most reviews had called Newton the film of the year, praising Amit Masurkar’s direction, the incisive, politically engaged writing, and the performances by Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi. Now, it has been announced that Newton , made on a budget of approximately Rs9 crore, will be India’s entry in the foreign language category at the 90th Academy Awards, to be held on 4 March 2018.

Newton, produced by Drishyam Films and presented by Eros International Media Ltd and Anand L. Rai, is about an idealistic polling official named Newton (Rao) sent to conduct elections in a Naxal-influenced forest region of Chhattisgarh. There, he must contend with the opposition of the military officer in charge (Tripathi) and the disinterest of the tribals, who have never seen a voting machine in their lives.

“It was unanimously chosen from 26 entries this year,” Film Federation of India secretary general Supran Sen said in an official statement. The 14-member selection committee, headed by Telugu producer C.V. Reddy, made the selection public on Friday morning, coinciding with Newton’s release in theatres across India.

In an interview before the film premiered at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in February, Masurkar said: “I have always wanted to shoot in a jungle, ever since I saw Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

“We have this perception that people who live there are uncivilized. In fact, their ‘society’ is superior to middle-class urban India.”

Reacting to the film’s selection, he told Mint: “It’s a great honour for us to represent India at the Oscars. We hope this film will bring to attention the need to strengthen democracy.”

Manish Mundra, founder of Drishyam Films and producer of Newton, said in a statement: “We cannot thank the Film Federation of India jury enough for recognising and appreciating our efforts. And for the news to be announced on the day of Newton’s theatrical release across India—the stars are truly aligning for us.”

Though the Oscar nod will likely result in a dramatic rise in interest for the film, it has already won acclaim on the festival circuit. At the Berlin Film Festival, it won the CICAE award for best film in the Forum segment. At the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April, it won the Jury Prize for Young Cinema. It was also nominated for a jury award at the Tribeca Film Festival in April for Best International Narrative Feature.

After Barfi! in 2012, Newton may be the least intimidating Indian Oscar entry for a regular viewer. Masurkar’s film is less forbidding than the entries of the last four years: The Good Road, Liar’s Dice, Court and Visaranai. The fact that it has already received strong reviews abroad, and that it’s a politically engaged film, should play in its favour as far as garnering one of the five nominations is concerned.

The Best Foreign Film category (in which three Indian films—Mother India, Salaam Bombay! and Lagaan—have made the final nominations list but not won) is one of the most contested Oscar races of all—Newton’s competitors for a place in the nomination list already include heavy hitters such as Loveless (Russia), In the Fade (Germany) and BPM (Beats Per Minute) (France). Yet, there appears to be near-unanimous approval of the film as India’s Oscar entry, which is rare. The film is engaging and sharp, accessible yet rooted.

The nomination odds are steep, but Newton might just be the little political satire that could make it.

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