“Newton,” india’s contender at Oscar’s foreign-language category, is that rarity, an indie that achieved box office numbers comparable to mid-range mainstream films.
Drishyam Films produced the Hindi-language film, about a rookie poll officer who overcomes the odds to conduct free and fair elections in a remote tribal area, on a budget of 45 million rupees ($692,000). It opened Sept. 22 in India and grossed $4.8 million.
Of the independent films chosen to represent India at the Oscars in the past decade, 2010’s “Peepli (Live)” is the only one to collect similar numbers. That film had a $1.5 million budget and made $6.2 million. However, “Peepli (Live)” had deep-pocketed backers including Aamir Khan Prods. and Disney’s UTV Motion Pictures. A publicity campaign by Khan, India’s most bankable star, was enough to send audiences in large numbers to the cinemas for fare they might not normally consume in such volume.
2015’s “Court” rode into Indian cinemas on a wave of acclaim and awards from global festivals including Venice, Vienna, Antalya, Hong Kong and Singapore and best film wins at the Mumbai Film Festival and India’s national awards. It took a modest $385,000. Last year’s contender “Visaranai” (Interrogation) grossed $1.7 million in India. Other recent submissions including “The Good Road” and “Liar’s Dice” barely registered at the box office. In this context, the numbers for “Newton” are remarkable.
“Newton” was also released following considerable international festival play and the CICAE award at Berlin, as well as the jury prize at Hong Kong. It also benefited from being released in India by Bollywood giant Eros Intl.
“Anand L. Rai and Eros, the presenters, decided to release the film in a big way,” says “Newton” director Amit Masurkar. “Rai has had a series of successes at the box office and has a considerable clout with exhibitors, thus ensuring us good screens and show [times] in the first weekend, despite heavy competition. His decision to release the film on 427 screens in the first week speaks of his optimistic approach and belief in the film.”
“Newton” opened on a packed weekend to universal critical acclaim alongside mainstream action comedy “Judwaa 2,” which was predicted to be a box-office smash and duly delivered $35 million, although the other openers, “Bhoomi” and “Haseena Parkar,” were poorly reviewed and underperformed.
There were other factors at play in the film’s success, too. “We definitely had full faith in the film but we got an added boost when the Oscar selection coincided with the day of the release,” says “Newton” producer Manish Mundra. “It brought visibility to the film for a much larger audience, which in turn aided the box-office numbers. It has also reinforced our belief that story- and character-driven cinema can be entirely self-sustaining, and that is what we plan to focus on in the years to come.”
Mundra was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch at Cannes earlier this year.
The rising visibility of “Newton” leading man Rajkummar Rao also contributed to the film’s success. Noted for his roles in indie films “Shahid,” “Omerta” and “Trapped,” Rao was one of the leads in mid-range mainstream hit “Bareilly ki Barfi,” which was released Aug. 18 and grossed $9 million, ensuring that the actor was in the public eye immediately prior to the “Newton” release.
“Rajkummar Rao is fast emerging as the poster boy of Indian new wave cinema and this is evident by a string of critically acclaimed releases he has had this year. The commercial success of ‘Newton’ has helped him cement that position,” says Masurkar.
One of Rao’s upcoming films is “Fanney Khan,” alongside Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Anil Kapoor (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
While there will always be a market for escapist Bollywood films, the Indian audience is increasingly embracing such story- and character-driven films as “Newton.”
“A growing population of the Indian audience of today has access to the same films and TV series as the rest of the world, thanks to Netflix, Amazon and torrent sites,” says Masurkar. “Their tastes are fast changing and filmmakers have started responding to this by making films that not just entertain but explore new progressive themes.”
The “Newton” team is now focused on the Oscars. The campaign will benefit from a grant of $154,000 from the Indian government that Drishyam is supplementing with more funds.
“We have locked a great publicist in L.A. and our team at Drishyam is working closely with them,” says Mundra. “We are reaching out to the Academy members by planning screenings and receptions all over L.A. over the next several weeks. The film is also making its L.A. premiere at the AFI Fest that is attended by many Academy and [Golden] Globe [voters]. As for U.S. distribution, we are in advanced talks with a couple of studios and will lock the deal soon.
“Every film has its own destiny and I believe ‘Newton’ is yet to reach its final destination.”