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Interview – Amit Masurkar: “Television is dead.”

Amit Masurkar started his career as a writer on television, and soon transitioned to films. He isn’t a very experienced, but going by his projects, one can never tell. ‘Sulemani Keeda’, his first directorial venture, premiered at Mumbai Film Festival and since then, he has been working on ‘Newton’. With actors like Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi, it promises to be an interesting project, to say the least.

Tell us a little about the film.
So, the main character is based on the original Newton. They are both idealistic, maybe this one is not as smart as Isaac Newton. He’s not a genius, but he’s hardworking and truthful. He works as a clerk in the government. He’s sent to Dandkaranya, a naxalite hit area in Chhattisgarh to hold elections. But he comes up against forces that challenge his truthfulness. That’s the premise of the story. It’s a dark comedy, a coming of age story, a thriller, satire and a politically driven film. So it doesn’t belong to one genre.

Did the recent elections have any effect on your story? Or was it the inspiration?
I actually wrote the first draft in 2013. So, it isn’t based on recent elections. Manish (Mundra) really liked the script so Mayank (Tiwari) and I immediately went to Chhattisgarh and started writing.

Is it based on anything?
The situation we showcase is real. The characters are based on people I have met. But the actual story is fictional. However, we did put in a lot of research to show the reality of the situation present there. No basic or factual errors have been made.

Did you have any difficulties while approaching producers for the film?
Yes, this is not a conventional film. We were rejected by a couple of production houses. I started writing in 2013 and then got busy with ‘Sulemani Keeda’. When you approach people for a big film like ‘Newton’, they want a point of reference for your work. They are giving you a big responsibility and they want to know that it is going in the right hands. So, having that film as a reference helped me.

Why did you base it in Chhattisgarh?
We needed a strong entity that prevented elections. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and that entire area, the Maoist influence is very strong. They don’t believe in this process and feel that this system has let them down. It’s an area that I know about and most of the documentaries and books I read and watched were based there.

How different is the ground reality in these areas from what you had researched?
It’s pretty much the same. It’s difficult for common people, especially the tribals. But people who come from outside, who work in the mines, or own shops are pretty insulated. There isn’t much interaction with them. For outsiders like us, it is very different. It takes time for people there to trust us and open up to tell us more about their circumstances.

Why did you cast Pankaj Tripathi?
I had done a short film with him, ‘L’. He was always on my radar and I wanted to cast him. So, when I got a chance, I did!

Why did you cast Anjali Patil?
I actually hadn’t watched ‘Chakravyuh’ which was a mainstream Hindi film she did. I first saw her in a Sinhalese film by Prasanna. She passed off as a character who spoke both Sinhalese and Tamil. I also knew she did a Bengali and Telugu film and that she knew Marathi. So, I thought a person who can navigate these languages so well would be able to portray the character I had in mind very well.

An actor like Pankaj Tripathi is addictive. For example, Ashwiny (Iyer) said that she cannot think of doing a film without him. So, did you have to tailor the character towards him to cast him?
Raj (Kummar Rao) and Pankaj (Tripathi) are like chameleons. They transform on screen. They are so versatile.

What was your background before ‘Sulemani Keeda’?
I wrote for ‘Great Indian Laughter Challenge’ and did a little more television. Apart from that, I wrote a couple of film scripts, all with big directors. But it never got made. We would cast and start, but for some reason, the project would get shelved. They eventually moved on to other projects and it didn’t materialize. So, sometime later, I realized it doesn’t make sense to rely on other directors. So, I wrote ‘Sulemani Keeda’ with the express desire not to approach another director.

Would you ever consider returning to television or write a show?
Television is dead. Why would I opt for a regressive show if when I can watch something on Youtube or Netflix or Hotstar. We have many more options now. But I would not mind writing a show, a web series perhaps. I’m open to it!

‘Newton’ releases on 22nd September, 2017.

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