Amit Masurkar: ‘I have to keep the people’s view as the dominant narrative’

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Amit Masurkar delves into conflict-ridden Chhattisgarh and emerges with uncanny hope and an Oscar nomination

THERE’S A LOVELY nugget of conversation in the recently-released political satire Newton that stays with you long after the film is over. It is part of an early conversation about elections and idealism between the protagonist, Newton, played by the extraordinary Rajkummar Rao, and a senior election official played by Sanjay Mishra in a memorable cameo.

On noting his eager demeanour and over-enthusiastic questions about the system, the officer asks Newton if he realises what his problem is. Newton promptly answers that it’s his “imaandaari ” (honesty). The officer gives him a dose of truth: it’s not his “imaandaari” that’s a problem, but “imaandaari ka ghamand” (the arrogance of honesty).

After an hour-long conversation with the man of the moment, Amit Musarkar, who has directed, written the story and co-written the screenplay of Newton (along with Mayank Tewari), you feel he’s internalised that moment. Masurkar is bereft of arrogance, let alone euphoria, given that his second film has been selected as the country’s official entry to the foreign language category of the Academy Awards.

“You know, I was just thinking that my first film (Sulemani Keeda, 2014) released on 40 screens, so anything more than that is a bonus,” says Masurkar with a self-effacing smile when asked about the Oscar entry. “I’m here with no backing, so my biggest prize is that my film is being seen in places like Jagdalpur, Gorakhpur and Solapur, and is running to full houses there. It’s also releasing in Kondagaon (Chhattisgarh), where many of the actors in the cast are from.”

It’s not that Masurkar isn’t happy right now; he is clearly gratified that his film has not only been unanimously acclaimed by critics, but at over Rs 17 crore and counting (as of October 3rd), it is also a bona fide hit in just a week of its release. So the thing about this 36-year- old filmmaker is that he gives you the impression that he’s always at least a certain degree of happy. Because he’s always doing what he loves: working on and around films.

“The thing about good collections is that it encourages all producers to make different films,” he says. “No producer wants to make similar things, so it instills confidence in filmmakers. I personally love films as different as Black Friday, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, Maqbool, Salaam Bombay and Tanu Weds Manu; Sai Paranjape is one of my favourite filmmakers. They’ve all inspired me to want to make something different, so I’m hoping this will do the same. It’ll also probably become easier for me to make my next film!”

It’s been a long journey for Masurkar. Growing up in a middle-class household in Mumbai’s Mahim area, near the iconic Shivaji Park, like many homegrown filmmakers Masurkar found himself in an engineering college before he knew what he wanted to do in life.

“I wasn’t a cinema buff growing up. I don’t think I’ve watched more than eight-nine movies in a theatre till my 10th standard. I didn’t even have cable TV for the longest time, because my parents wanted me to study. But I just wasn’t a very good student.”

His initiation into films happened at Manipal University, or rather around it. “There was a very interesting culture of DVD parlours at that time, around 2000- 01, in Manipal, ” Masurkar says. “These parlours would screen films like Taxi Driver, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Romeo and Juliet and the likes. The internet was coming up at the same time, where I kind of discovered Script-O-Rama (a screenwriting e-resource). I would watch these films and go ‘Wow’, and then download the scripts from the site and read them, along with the director’s interview and making-of details. That gave me an understanding of the movie and would deconstruct it for me.”

THIS SUDDEN INTEREST in the ‘craft’, as he calls it, prompted Masurkar to second-guess the engineering degree that he was pursuing. At around the same time, he chanced upon the blog of Academy Award winning co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avary. On a whim, he wrote to him seeking advice.

“At that time, internet pe sirf shareef log thhe (the internet only had decent people),” Masurkar says with a chuckle. “So he did what no one does today, which is, write me back. He said that ‘you should believe in what you do and never, ever have a back up’. That is something that really resonated with me. So till now, unlike a lot of other people, I only have one script at a time. If that’s the movie I want to make, why have multiple scripts?”

The other advice that Avary gave was to quit everything and do films. And so, Masurkar dropped out of engineering college and returned to Mumbai. “I thought, ‘Itna bada aadmi bol raha hai (such a big man is saying this), he must be right’,” Masurkar says, breaking into laughter.

I want people to feel things the next time they read about this conflict; I want them to remember the visuals the next time they hear about it

On the behest of his parents, who were supportive even if anxious, he ended up doing a BA in History for the sake of ‘having a degree’. But at 20, he knew he wanted to be in the movies. So when he got the chance to cover the Mumbai International Film Festival for youth magazine JAM, he grabbed the opportunity to network and landed his first entertainment job, albeit as an intern, with MTV Filmy Funda.

In a decade-long career since, Masurkar has dabbled in everything from assisting filmmakers like Aanand L Rai, who was making telefilms at that time, to writing sketches and stand-up for television’s The Great Indian Comedy Show, to directing a ‘Making 0f’ featurette for Dibakar Banerjee. In between, he wrote several scripts that never got made into films. Eventually, Masurkar decided to go after his own heart and direct a film, instead of waiting around for an opportunity to knock on his door. This film became his directorial debut, Sulemani Keeda.

A ‘mumblecore slacker movie’ (a first for an Indian movie) about two struggling writers trying to ‘make it’ in Bollywood, Sulemani Keeda was inspired by the rawness of the early films of the indie filmmakers who started the mumblecore genre, such as Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach. It had a limited release in 2014 but Masurkar managed to get Avary himself to see it at a screening in Los Angeles, and the legendary writer-producer even gave him a quote for the film’s poster: “Reminds me of my early years with Quentin Tarantino!”

“I was just trying to get the honesty across and get the basics right with Sulemani Keeda. Mostly, I was trying not to fuck up,” Masurkar says. The movie was loved by the few who saw it, but more importantly, it earned him a show reel of what he could do with low budgets and a big heart. Newton, only his second film, took shape the year after, and fell into place with surprising ease.

Masurkar had approached the new godfather of independent cinema in India, Manish Mundra, of Drishyam Films, who heard the film over a car ride, loved it, and immediately dialled Rajkummar Rao. The actor read it in two days and gave his nod. When the film was ready, Rao showed a clip from the movie to Aanand L Rai (director of Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa), who remembered Amit from his time as an assistant, and called him up to offer support. On seeing the film, he loved it so much that he came on to present it.

“I lucked out with both Manish and Aanand sir,” Masurkar says. “Manish is not just a producer but also a poet, painter and photographer, so he cares for the film. And Aanand Rai remembered me from back in the day and called me on his own, which is such a rare thing. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve met.”

It’s not just the producers of the film that Masurkar has kind words for; it’s everyone from Rao to the other actors, to his co-writer, to others in the industry, who he believes have supported him during the making of his debut and later. This lack of cynicism is refreshing in an industry that thrives on distrust. Only days after the announcement of Newton’s foreign language Oscar entry, the internet was filled with stories of how it’s a copy of the 2001 Iranian film, Secret Ballot.

That was until Anurag Kashyap squashed these rumours by getting in touch with the producer and director of Secret Ballot and sourcing statements from them about how the two are very different films on the same theme. Question Masurkar on how he manages to remain hopeful during a controversy like this, and he shrugs it off. “I’m not an extrovert, I’ve never put my opinions on a blog or social media. So I wasn’t really paying attention. I’m just happy about the announcement and the fact that the movie is doing well. After all, like Newton, I should also have hope. How can I be ‘niraashavaadi’ (a malcontent)? Hope is the only thing that makes life interesting. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

This hope is central to how Masurkar and his characters perceive life. Hope is what drives the protagonist in Newton to risk his life to carry out his election duties, and hope is what sustains him through the course of an atypical day in the film.

“You read about people like Newton in the papers all the time,” says the writer- director. “There are people who work within the system but get transferred all the time or get demoted for doing their job and yet they carry on doing it. I find these people interesting because I’ve realised that what drives them is a deep sense of love, you know. When you talk to these people, they are not bitter. They’ve realised that ‘This is how I am, and as long as I do this, I’ll be happy’.”

What makes Newton such a fantastic watch is that it places such a character, filled with love and hope, working towards an idealistic goal that doesn’t exist, in the middle of a place where both are in short supply.

“Democracy is the loftiest idea of Western civilisation,” Masurkar says. “I thought it would be interesting if you’d try to explore it in a place where only the procedural aspect of it was in use, but the actual idea—the democratic principles— was not. That gap between these ideals and the idea in practice are huge. I wanted to understand what happens in such situations that we read about only in the news.”

Masurkar decided to set the film in Chhattisgarh after reading Rahul Pandita’s book, Hello Bastar, which detailed the impossible conflict between the ideologies of Maoism and democracy. He dove into issues surrounding Naxalism through books written by Nandini Sundar (Subalterns and Sovereigns) and Ilina Sen (Inside Chhattisgarh), along with documentaries and reports, and help from journalists Javed Iqbal and Mangal Kunjam.

“But the only way to do justice to such a script was to be on the side of the people,” he says. “In any conflict area, people are forced to pick sides, and everyone is expected to be on opposite sides of a spectrum. But that’s not the reality when you go there. The problem is that the only information coming out is that of conflict and of everybody getting killed. So, as a filmmaker, I have to understand everyone’s point of view, but keep the people’s view—the normal people who live there, who no one knows of—as the dominant narrative. For me, the viewpoint of Malko (played by Anjali Patil) is the strongest one. She is calm, unlike Newton, and tells him that change doesn’t come in one day; change takes time.”

ISAAC NEWTON’S THIRD and possibly most cited law of physics says, ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Masurkar’s action of making the subtle gem that is Newton has already got him a warm response, as well as the International Confederation of Art Cinema Award at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, where Newton had its world premiere. So does Masurkar believe the film will bring home an Oscar… or perhaps something even greater, like the hint of change in the mindset of an audience?

The filmmaker insists that he isn’t thinking about this. “Of course, I want people to feel things the next time they read about this conflict; I want them to remember the visuals the next time they hear about it,” he says. “That’s the function of art, poetry, songs and music, you know… that’s the purpose of John Lennon’s Imagine or Working Class Hero… to give people hope.”

He adds, “My friend, Mangal Kunjam, who is a Gondi journalist and activist, and was an on-set consultant on the film, he’s just happy that a film representing what’s happening in the area is being shown all over in India and the world. That is hope, no? He is happy that this film got made, and as a filmmaker, I’m happy that I got to do work. I’m a storyteller and that’s all I can do.”

There is a song in Newton that Masurkar suddenly turns to. It’s a song that sums up both the film, its ‘imaandaar ’ protagonist, and Masurkar’s philosophy of work and life: Chal Tu Apna Kaam Kar’ (Carry on doing your work). “Main aur kyaa kar sakta hoon?” (What else can I do?)