Actor Rajkummar Rao and director Amit Masurkar in conversation with Team Box Office India, talk about their upcoming film Newton
Box Office India (BOI): What was the inspiration behind Newton?
Amit Masurkar (AM): I wanted to do something in the political space. All the political films you see are about conspiracies, scandals or dynasties. You know, they are, like, big films which connect with the mind. I wanted to do something that would appeal to the heart. I was wondering how I could do this without involving politicians or journalists or creating that whole aura or that story. So I thought, let’s just try and get to the most basic element that we are familiar with, which is the voting booth. That’s how the idea was born.
BOI: Rajkummar, what kind of preparation did you do to play a character like Newton?
Rajkummar Rao (RR): Well there was a lot of research which was already done with the script. So, I just had to, honestly, understand the character. Like, where he comes from, the kind of job he does. The director gave me a book on the manual of a presiding officer to get to know about the technical responsibilities of an officer at a polling booth. I went through that. Then there was the physical aspect we had to work on. This character has curly hair and then he has a problem with his eyes, where he blinks constantly. The most important thing for me was to catch the sincerity and the honesty that Newton believes in. Once I got hold of that, it was a smooth ride thereafter.
BOI: Was Rajkummar always the first choice for the film?
AM: There is a lot of similarity between Raj’s personality and Newton’s character. Everybody knows Raj is sincere and hardworking. But there is one aspect about him that I saw… his sense of humour, which is very quirky. At the time, Bareilly Ki Barfi had not yet released. Everybody sees him as funny only now. I knew this about him long before that. Raj was the first choice when I was writing this. When I spoke to Manish Mundra (producer), I told him, ‘Raj ko hi lete hai.’ So we called him up, he read the script and liked it. Everything was easy from there.
BOI: Rajkummar, can you name one specific trait of your character Newton that appealed to you most and that made you say ‘yes’ to the film?
RR: It’s not one trait about the character, the script as a whole was very enjoyable while I was reading it. I think it is a great combination of talking about such an important issue and also keeping it very humorous, in a subtle way. I loved the combination of these two things. I knew him (Amit) since the days of LSD (Love Sex Aur Dhoka). He was doing the behind-the-scenes for LSD. There was something about him and I have been fond of him since then.
I couldn’t watch Sulemani Keeda, but I have heard a lot of good things about the film. When Manish Mundra called me to tell me that Amit would be directing, I was anyway excited, because we kept bumping into each other after LSD and before Newton. I thought he was a sensible guy and there would be something interesting in the film. When I read it, I was, like, ‘Bang on!’ It was a great script and a wonderfully written part for me.
BOI: The movie has won so many accolades at the Berlin and other international film festivals. How does that make you feel?
RR: It feels great, of course! You put in so much effort, you believe in something when you make it with your heart. Festivals like, Berlin or Honk Kong, where they recognise your work or give you an award for it… it definitely feels great.
BOI: Speaking of a festival release… when a movie like this goes to various festivals and receives so much critical acclaim, does releasing it in India become easy?
AM: Of course, it does. If it hadn’t won these awards and created some sort of buzz, the media wouldn’t have reported on it. Aanand L Rai also found out about this film because of the Berlin thing. I had assisted him in 2004, but Raj showed him a clip from the film and he grew really interested and wanted to watch the film. This is because of the good review we received at various film festivals like Berlin, Hong-Kong and Tribeca. Festivals help as they create curiosity. Secondly, with globalisation, everything is coming together. We are watching Game Of Thrones on the same day as it releases. So things are changing, tastes are changing. I don’t really differentiate between a foreign audience and an Indian audience. People like the same thing. They want to watch a story, and this story is an interesting story.
BOI: But isn’t it unfortunate that the audience here often takes notice of such films only after they are praised internationally?
AM: Aisa kuch nahi hai! This went to Berlin, which is a nice thing. Even if it hadn’t gone to Berlin, people would’ve probably liked it. I don’t know… Raj, what do you think?
RR: I think when a film goes to a festival, it is a bonus. So many good films have not been to festivals and people still get to know about them.
BOI: How was the experience of shooting in the jungles of Central India?
RR: It was very meditative because there was no WiFi, no network, nobody around. It was just us, the jungle, and those amazing local people. Everybody’s energy was focused on making the film and turning it into a beautiful piece of work, which happens very rarely. Usually, after ‘cut’, people immediately turn to their phones. Nobody did that because there was nothing in the phone!
BOI: Raj, your choices of films like Trapped, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Newton are very impactful and different from each other…
RR: If it excites me enough and challenges me enough, I say yes to the films that are offered to me. I don’t really connect too many dots. I am very impulsive, that way. I don’t really think too deeply before signing a film… whether or not it will make money, who is directing it, who is backing it or if it will help my career. My only criterion is the script. And if I like a script, I do it.
BOI: And you do one film at a time…
RR: Yeah, I do one film at a time. I can’t do two projects at a time. I think, before Newton, I finished Trapped. And then I moved on to finish Newton. I can’t really focus on two characters at a time, it is very tough. I also try and give my characters a different look. Like, right now, I have partially shaved for Bose Dead/Alive and I really can’t do anything else apart from Bose… I have to finish one film, get it out of my system and then move on to the next one.
BOI: What was it like to work with Amit?
RR: It is wonderful. I think he has a really bright future. His vision is so different and so special and very unique. I really hope we get to work together again and again. He’s young, he also has a weird sense of humour, which is quite intellectual. He has a lot of knowledge about films. I think he has seen so much, read so much, so he knows what he wants. His vision is very clear, which makes my job very easy when I’m acting.
BOI: What is that one thing that the audience will take away from Newton?
RR: It’s not really a preachy film. It’s not really trying to send out a message. It touches upon very important issues, especially elections and voting and how we really… There are so many people who don’t realise the importance of voting and what a single vote can do. And how the process, you know, works. There is a line in the trailer, which goes, “Kuch nahi badloge toh kuch nahi badlega, jab tak kuch nahi badloge dost toh kuch nahi badlega.” That is very important, you know. Change starts from within, you have to change yourself and then you can start expecting people to change.
BOI: What was your experience like, working with Anjali Patil and Pankaj Tripathi?
RR: Mine was wonderful. I think it always helps when you have great co-actors. It makes the scene work and of course your performance naturally improves.
AM: Same here. After we cast all the actors, we modified the lines and the scenes according to their strengths. So when the actor sees the script, they own it, they feel ‘this is me’. I think that really helped. So, for instance, the moment we cast Pankaj Tripathi, we rewrote his lines, completely rewrote them because we know Pankaj’s strengths. It was the same with Raj because Raj’s lines was written with Raj in mind. I was very happy working with these actors. All of them gave their best.
BOI: What were your challenges while directing this film?
AM: There were two types of challenges. One was the physical challenge, which was shooting in the jungle, a Maoist-controlled area. And because it’s a jungle and because it’s a story of one day, we had to shoot at the time of the day we were showing in the film. So, if we needed it to be 8 am, we’d shoot at 8 am. If we missed the shot, we had to shoot it the next day. In the midst of this, it started raining. It was the month of March and the rain was unexpected. So our schedule went haywire. We were speechless. If it rained at 12 noon and stopped raining at 12.30, we still couldn’t shoot at 1 o’clock because the rain had left the jungle was wet and it looked like a different place. So we had to shoot again on the next day. We kept thinking ki aaj baarish nahi hogi. So that was the physical challenge. Then there was the mental challenge and it was quite exhausting because we were doing a story about a situation we had only read about before. We got into it only a year before we started shooting and it was about a situation that was very sensitive. So we had to be very careful about how we were representing the culture, how we were representing politics, how we were portraying people. We had to constantly be aware of what we were doing. We would engage in intense discussions till late at night, discussing kaise karna hai kya karna hai. But it was a very enjoyable experience because everybody was like – hope hai.
RR: There was great energy on the sets.
BOI: Newton is releasing with other movies that are also quite talked about it. What runs through your mind when there are multiple releases on that day?
RR: We only have 52 Fridays and we make so many films. I wish there were many more cinemas in our country but there aren’t. So you have to accept that. Luckily, Newton is a very different film from Haseena Parkar or Bhoomi. So I hope Newton will find its own audience. And Haseena… and Bhoomi will also find their audiences.
BOI: What are your expectations?
RR: We don’t really have any expectations. We are really proud of the film.
AM: I respect the audience and don’t believe the audience should have to leave their brains behind and come to the theatre to enjoy a film. I don’t believe in that. I respect the audience as I would respect myself. If I was looked down upon by a filmmaker who thought, ‘This guy is stupid, so let me make this film for him,’ I would not like it. So I am making this film for people thinking that they are like me and I am hoping that they will come and watch it. It is the kind of film that will easily connect with people.
BOI: What’s next?
AM: I haven’t thought of like… I haven’t locked anything now. I am actually writing something, so let’s see.
RR: There’s, of course Bose, there’s Omerta. Then I’m starting Fanney Khan. And then there’s a film called Shaadi Main Zarur Aana with Ratna Sinha.
BOI: Too many shaadi movies for you, Raj?
RR: Yeah, real mein toh ho nahi rahi hai toh filmon mein kar lete hain.