The Berlin winner on his political satire, life nuggets from Mahesh Bhatt, and why every writer doesn’t aspire to make a movie
Kunal Guha (MUMBAI MIRROR; February 26, 2017)

On a Spanish holiday, shortly after being honoured with the International Federation of Art Cinemas award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival for Newton, director Amit Masurkar’s first reaction is that he “wasn’t expecting so much travel”. “It is a story set in a jungle in Chhattisgarh during elections. So I didn’t expect the audience in Germany to connect with the story,” says the filmmaker, who left the festival a day before the award was announced; he wasn’t expecting to win.

“With Brexit and Donald Trump getting elected, people are questioning the ideals of democracy, which is why they found parallels in their own shortcomings,” he says.

Newton — a dark comedy stars Rajkumar Rao as a government officer on election duty at a polling booth in a Naxal-infested conflict zone — was shot an hour-and-a-half away from Dalli Rajhara. It’s an area with a strong Maoist presence. This meant additional security measures and precautions for the crew. “We had 40 actors in camouflage carrying fake AK47s, so there was a danger that they could be mistaken for real constables,” says the filmmaker. And though he opted to shoot without police protection in order “to remain neutral”, Masurkar briefed his crew to refrain from discussing politics and cast mainly local non-actors. “They were fearless and got it right away,” says Masurkar, who didn’t mind investing in a few extra takes for every shot that featured a first-time actor.

Incidentally, the original idea for Newton occurred to Masurkar when he happened to browse through the Constitution — a document he describes as “a beautiful piece of writing” and one that gave him “goosebumps”. He was inspired to write “a story about democracy”, without spilling into the political saga genre. This eureka moment led to the story of a day at a polling booth in a conflict-prone area. “Under the guise of conflict, you can do anything and this got me thinking,” says Masurkar. “I even met government officials in Delhi who had been deployed on election duty in conflict zones.”

The engineering dropout “drifted into the film industry” because he had “nothing better to do”. An internship with JAM magazine had him cover the Mumbai International Film Festival and drew him to cinema. Following a string of assisting and writing gigs, which included sketches for The Great Indian Comedy Show, he made his directorial debut with the 2013 indie comedy Sulemani Keeda about two struggling writers hopeful of finding their feet. While the film gave Masurkar an identity, “it only released in 40 screens”. “When I started out, all struggling writers aspired to make a feature film. Today, most want to make a web series and many are even tweaking their film scripts for the web,” he says. Even Masurkar hopes to ride the wave of short-form cinema for the internet as it allows one “a chance to work outside the system, the content is uncensored or self-censored, there’s freedom to do something that won’t fly on regular TV or cinema screens and there’s no pressure to cast stars”.

“But there is one danger — many web shows are being churned out of unsold film scripts and have low production standards. As more web shows fail, people will blame the medium.”

Masurkar, who co-wrote Murder 3, recollects working with Mahesh Bhatt as an invaluable experience. “Mahesh Bhatt, who plays himself in my first film, believes in the ideology that ‘no matter how much we achieve or study, we know nothing about life. We just have to discover our own purpose and meaning’,” says the writer-director, whose Murder 3 was accused of being ripped off from Spanish thriller The Hidden Face. But Masurkar is all for “adaptations”. “Since time immemorial, stories keep getting rehashed and retold. There are dozens of versions of Ramayana — from Indonesia to Afghanistan. Films are a 100 years old, so how can you suddenly expect something purely original and devoid of any influence? I’m all for adaptations of stories, which are competing enough to be retold but not lazy frame-by-frame remakes,”he argues.