The story begins four days ago, when actor Rajkummar Rao announces the submission of the film Newton as India’s official entry to the 2018 Oscars, prompting a litany of excited tweets and joyous articles in home outlets, as well as Variety.
— Rajkummar Rao (@RajkummarRao) September 22, 2017
The film, a dark comedy directed by newcomer Amit Masurkar, had already prompted some buzz on the festival circuit this year, even winning honors at the Berlinale. This kind of energy speaks to the distinction of the country’s presence at the Oscars, as an India-produced film has yet to take home the statue. Perhaps this is why, less than a day later, the internet began to sizzle with a decidedly different brand of attention. The worst kind.
It seems that news channel NDTV India, a Hindi network in New Delhi, began to stir up the notion that there were valid, perhaps controversial similarities between it and a 2001 Iranian film, Babak Payami’s Secret Ballot (Raye Makhfi). In the follow-up article posted on September 23rd, NDTV clarified: “NDTV.com has discovered uncanny resemblances…The idea and the concept of both these films are similar. Both narrate the story of a voting day in a remote place.” The article continues to describe some of these similarities, and even allows Masurkar to defend his film, which he asserts is an original work.
NDTV’s critical comparisons were duly picked up by the American press and rumors began to spread, throwing the reputation of Newton into the ringer. Dozens of outlets began to comment and precipitate soundbites, prompting unrelated filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap to weigh in, which turned Newton into a poisonous talking point that already threatens to taint India’s hopeful Oscar entry. The news cycle is further contextualized by Iran’s presence at the Oscars in recent years; director Asghar Farhadi won the nation’s first Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2012 for A Separation, with another win at the most recent ceremony for The Salesman.
Kashyap went further than simply proffering his two cents, even posting screenshots of facebook discussions he engaged in with Marco Müller, where he asked the Secret Ballot producer for his input on the controversy. Müller stated that “There is not even a hint of plagiarisation,” while Payami himself responded to journalist queries with “I am…not contemplating anything other than my best wishes for Amit Masurkar.” Kashyap’s championing of the film, including his derision of “controversy mongers,” communicates the apparent intensity with which India approaches the Oscars in 2018.
All of this news has not seemed to derail Newton’s box office take, which has reached a current total of Rs. 82.1 million Rupees (or the equivalent of over $13 million US). The most significant irony throughout this entire ordeal is that Iran’s Secret Ballot appears to have earned much less than even $300,000, according to IMDB, although the film was released in fewer theaters.
Babak Payami most recently directed Manhattan Undying, a vampire film produced in Canada. Perhaps, at best, the swirling controversy will inspire more attention to the Iranian filmmaker’s work.
More on this story if further developments occur.
‘Secret Ballot’ trailer:
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