With just enough social relevance to lend a blush of importance, but without the kind of spikiness that could threaten to burst its light dramedy bubble, “Newton,” India’s Oscar submission in the foreign language film category, is a good-natured charmer that’s just a little too cozy to satisfy its billing as satire. A warm portrait of a stiff-backed young election official learning that principles don’t always mesh with practicality in the Indian democratic process, its modest story is elevated by an ingratiating turn from Rajkummar Rao, embodying the kind of lovable doofus that Tom Hanks might have played in an American analog a few years ago. Directed by Amit V Masurkar, (whose last movie, the energetic “Suleimani Keeda,” carved a successful festival path) the film, about the difficulties of boots-on-the-ground democracy is, of all things, easy: easy to watch, easy to enjoy and easy to leave with one’s preconceptions wholly unchallenged.
Newton (Rao) is a serious-minded young civil servant who decides to prove his dedication to the democratic ideal by volunteering for a gig no one else wants — overseeing a ramshackle polling station in the middle of a rebel-infested nowhere, so that a handful of locals can participate in an election about which they know little and care less. Earlier scenes have already established him as a man of unyielding principle who is nonetheless caught between tradition and progressiveness: He rejects a marriage arranged by his doting parents once he discovers the girl is underage. But Newton will find his ethical rigidity bent to the breaking point in the jungle, with a motley crew of assistants, including irreverent old-hand Loknath (Raghubir Yadav); and Malko (Anjali Patil), a pretty young local woman brought in to facilitate and translate for the villagers, who don’t understand Hindi.
As schematically familiar as that set-up sounds, “Newton” thankfully avoids most of the standard romantic comedy cliches, though the framework for a less nuanced, less culturally specific and more formulaic U.S. remake, set in rural Alaska or remote New Mexico for instance, certainly exists. But a remake would be a shame: “Newton” is at its best when it’s at its most idiosyncratic — when its ragtag characters are grumbling and hacking their way through fetid jungle or lethargically trading life philosophies to while away the time in the untrafficked makeshift station.
Disgruntled and cynical army captain Atma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) tasked with protecting Newton and his team from rebel attack, soon emerges as the film’s chief antagonist, as if this bluntly pragmatic soldier’s ideological opposition to Newton’s comparatively effete city-boy aura could be any more marked. But really the situation is the enemy — the sheer size and complexity of India as it tries to maneuver the machinery of the world’s largest democracy within its riotously diverse, often mutually mistrustful classes and populations, all of whom have their own agendas.
Regional critics have been quick to praise the film’s downplayed presentation. And Swapnil S Sonawane’s restrained cinematography and Naren Chandravarkar and Benedict Taylor’s unobtrusive music (bar one nice singing sequence that is more or less organically engineered), as well as the understated performances and lived-in production design, certainly set “Newton” apart from the bright, bold excesses of Bollywood. Yet if formally “Newton” cleaves more to the model of the international or American indie, its message is perhaps most pertinent to its nation of origin, where the film has already done strong numbers.
It could have been a timely, relevant investigation into electoral malfeasance — a topical theme in many corners of the world right now. But it is undercut by a rather mealymouthed conclusion that portrays Newton’s bureaucratic intransigence not quite as heroic, but at least quixotically noble, and while its sincere belief in the value of democratic due process may resonate with some viewers internationally, younger audiences might find its resolutely nonpartisan politics a little too comfortable for comfort. The film’s ultimately uncontroversial central tenet is that it’s not how you vote but that you vote that matters. But, certainly Stateside, where “Newton” is tilting at Oscar’s windmills, how you vote(d) feels like the crux of so much heated discourse that the film’s gently Utopian faith in democracy for its own sake seems far removed from the current American moment.