It is rare to emerge from a darkened cinema theatre with a sense of having shared in a work of art that spoke so abundantly to your mind, heart and soul. To have watched a film fierce in its politics, acute in its social commentary, and luminous in its humanism.
I speak of Nandita Das’s film Zwigato, that opened recently in theatres around the country. I watched it through much of its length with moist eyes, and with a constant piercing of my heart.
The first strength of this film lies precisely in this, in its profound compassion. There is aching tenderness in its careful observation of the quiet struggles, the dignity, the resolve, the hurt and the determined love of the two central characters.
Manas Mahto loses his job as a factory floor manager during the lockdown and in desperation becomes a food delivery boy. He chases orders and deadlines through the highways and bylanes of Bhubaneshwar each long working day, to provide for his family – his critically ailing mother, his devoted wife Pratima and his two growing children. Pratima has held the family together, but steps out warily now also to share her husband’s burdens, to earn as a masseuse to rich women in high-rise apartments and as a janitor in a mall.
Both try to hide from the other from the humiliations, the insults and disappointments that they endure as they daily grapple with the uncaring, defiantly unequal world of rich and middle-class India. Their unostentatious but steadfast love, for each other and for those in their care, forms the moral core of the film, and in the end its only source of hope.
But the film manages to be gentle even in its rage: it lacerates with its penetrating observation of the spectacular lack of compassion of the Indian middle classes in our everyday lives, of their indifference to injustice and discrimination, and of their casual class contempt. Again, all of this is quietly but attentively noticed.
A young woman with a dog at an apartment lift peremptorily redirects Pratima to use the service lift. Another refuses her services as a masseuse muttering about her body odour without even stepping near her. A building allows delivery boys only to use the stairs, barring them from entering the lifts. Many customers are mindlessly rude or brusque to the man who delivers the food to their apartments or offices. In one case of religious prejudice, a Muslim delivery man in terrified to enter a Hindu temple to complete his delivery, and asks his Hindu colleague to do this for him instead.
Since Das’s film is characterised by its grace and understatement, none of these middle-class encounters with our working class protagonists are stereotypical or overdrawn in their portrayal. The truth is that urban middle-class Indians accept as normal, even legitimate these class and caste casual insults and segregations. Elite clubs and restaurants frown on if not openly debar people who are visibly working class, even if they have been brought in by their employers (usually to tend to the babies and unruly children). Almost every high-rise in the National Capital Region (where I live) continue to bar domestic helpers, drivers and security guards from using the lifts and facilities that other residents use routinely.
Not just does this segregation persist. Few of us still seem to regard these are morally or socially unacceptable in a democratic society. That Das simply holds up a mirror, drawing our attention to these behaviours, is morally salient.
I have long wondered at how little most middle-class Indians even notice the existence as human beings, let alone acknowledge the equal humanity of working-class people who work in our homes, cooking our food, mopping our floors, tending our children and old parents, driving our cars, delivering our food, milk, newspapers and packages. My very exceptional friend spent decades of his working life leading well-regarded NGOs; he decided to take a sabbatical and work instead as a food delivery boy. In the couple of years that he drove a bike around his city, he occasionally delivered food to his former colleagues. But they did not recognise him because when workers serve us, how often do we even notice them, look at their faces with minimal respect and curiosity?
Beyond the iridescent human story of the film Zwigato, and its discomforting social commentary on class and caste; the film raises critical questions also about the dominant economic model that overwhelmingly holds India – and much of the contemporary world – in its throes.
The truth is that whereas wealth of incomprehensible levels are accumulating in a tiny number of hands, very few jobs are being created. And the few jobs (relative to the millions who seek work) that are being created are unprotected, with no security of wages, of tenure, of safety, of social security. The work that the two protagonists in Das’s film fall into – of a delivery boy, a masseur, a janitor – represent the only options available to millions. And those who get this low-end insecure work are in constant danger – of wage cuts, of insults, and of abrupt terminations. An irate Zwigato executive scolds Mahto that he should be grateful for the opportunity to deliver food and earn a living, rather than grumble about his conditions of work.
If there was one agent who was resoundingly missing in Das’s film, it was the state. It stood nowhere to ensure that they were even registered or recognised as workers, let alone protected in any way – keeping them safe from accidents or health hazards, ensuring they are not worked for longer than the statutory work day, securing for them statutory minimum wages, redressing their grievances, and protecting them from unlawful catastrophic terminations. The state recurred only in the dreams of the main protagonist, promising access to ever-growing crowds of some secure government employment.
The work that the two protagonists in Das’s film get is the only kind of employment and the only future that neoliberalism is offering to India’s young working millions. Yet it is extraordinary that this has not stirred the conscience of film-makers today, except the rare Nandita Das.
It is instructive how working-class people, their lives and stories, have almost been erased from the mainstream of Indian cinema in these decades of neoliberalism. Das’s film challenges this erasure, and walks tall instead in the grand humanist tradition of the best of Indian and world cinema. I detected in it echoes of the idiom and rhythm of some works of Satyajit Ray. I recalled resounding cinematic testimonies of earlier generations of working class oppression – from Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves to Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, from Kurosawa’s Red Beard to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath.
Nandita Das speaks to us of the lives and struggles of ordinary people from who has been stolen cruelly all hopes of a decent future, and of the cruel indifference to them of people of privilege and the state. In doing so, in the times we live in, she has chosen to walk a lonely rocky path. But by doing so, she reclaims for us the aesthetic of humanism, of brave social commentary, and of conscience.