Cast: Kapil Sharma and Shahana Goswami
Director: Nandita Das
Rating: Three and a half stars (out of 5)
(Nandita Das' Zwigato had its national premiere at the 27th International Film Festival of Kerala)
In tone and tenor, Nandita Das' third directorial outing is a clear departure: a contemporary portrait of the gig economy and its pitfalls. In many ways, however, Zwigato is part of the creative continuum that began with Firaaq, a commentary on the turn-of-the-millennium communal riots that shook Gujarat, and Manto, a richly layered biopic that held up a mirror to times past and present.
Zwigato, which had its national premiere as part of the Kaleidoscope sidebar of the 27th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), addresses the deleterious impact of an unsustainable model of development on those that are either left out of it altogether or are granted only a marginal presence in its folds.
Produced by Applause Entertainment and Nandita Das Initiatives, Zwigato lays bare the plight of a migrant couple struggling to make ends meet in the rapidly developing city of Bhubaneswar. The film does not adopt miserabilist methods to drive home its point - the two principal characters are individuals who hold on to their dignity despite the uncertainties that surround them.
What Zwigato does very well is present a story of strife and struggle in a nation and a society that thinks nothing of heaping indignities upon those that have been pushed to the margins.
The male protagonist is Manas Mahto (Kapil Sharma cast in a role that one would hardly believe is cut out for him), a food delivery boy who strays into the profession after losing the job of a factory floor supervisor. His soul-crushing routine hinges on numbers, timings and ratings that, as Manas laments, has reduced him to a machine.
His wife, Pratima (Shahana Goswami, who, as always, slips into the skin of the character with minimum effort), who has to take care of their two children as well as his infirm mother, does her best to ease matters. But nothing seems to ever go right for her and her earnest husband.
Manas does not drink or smoke and is committed heart and soul to providing for his family in an economy that has devised ways to trap the likes in a constant cycle of exploitation that may, at first flush, appear to be a means of self-employment. That Manas' job is anything but is evident in his constant battle to tot up the numbers.
Manas Mahato is like everybody else of his ilk - he wants to make an honest living in the face of never-ending challenges, but those that control the levers of economic power are loath to creating an equitable system that would give everyone a fair shot at a chance to claw their way out of financial instability.
Working for a food delivery app is akin to serving an invisible master who steadily gnaws away at the riders' sense of self-worth, already severely undermined by their inability to secure more stable jobs. The government does not make things any easier. Its poorly publicised employment schemes - one of which finds repeated mention in Zwigato - raise false hopes but deliver next to nothing.
Malik dikhai nahin deta par ghulami poori hai, an exasperated Manas says to fellow food delivery riders. In response to a placard that reads Mazdoor hai tabhi majboor hai, he quips, Majboor hai tabhi mazdoor hai. He should know. He has left his home state of Jharkhand in search of greener pastures but all that he has found is a precarious existence on the edge of persistent privation.
It isn't only the predicament of migrants struggling to find a foothold in an alien and apathetic environment that Zwigato deals with. It also touches upon gender roles within a family - Pratima's success in finding a job that might bring in more money than Manas' delivery rounds on his motorcycle causes just a hint of friction between the two.
Nandita Das and Samir Patil's screenplay finds angles in Manas Mahto's story for references to caste and class prejudice, sectarian divides, and corporate whimsicalities. Zwigato presents a sharply delineated picture of progress that leaves large swathes of the population behind as it trundles down its merry ways that allow some to enjoy the perks of their wealth without the slightest sense of responsibility towards those that they exploit and demean with impunity.
Zwigato has three cameos that represent disparate faces of the situation on the ground for the likes of Manas Mahto and his wife. Swanand Kirkire is Govind Raj, a political activist who gives voice to the aspirations of the oppressed working class.
Gul Panag plays a marketing head of an electric motorcycle company that promises to help the food delivery boys do away with high fuel costs. And Sayani Gupta turns up in a single scene as an unbending Zwigato zonal head who flies down from Kolkata and gives Manas a hearing that ends badly.
In one scene, Pratima, an occasional masseur, visits a highrise apartment. As she is about to approach the elevator, a lady with a dog instructs her to use the service lift. The canine pet is clearly better off than Pratima: he has access to the main elevator on account of who he belongs to. That is no surprise given that housing complexes prohibit the use of lifts by delivery boys.
In a society in which discrimination is normalised, is it any surprise that a food delivery boy named Aslam hesitates to step into a temple from where he has received an order? The Zwigato script also factors in a relevant footnote about another Muslim boy, a student leader, who lives in fear of the police cases that might be foisted on him to intimidate him into abandoning the path of dissent.
All of this, and more, is woven into the unpretentious but unfailingly pertinent picture that Zwigato paints of a world where the indigent and the weak are allowed no chance at all to better their lot in a meaningful manner.
The pace and rhythm of Zwigato hinges on the flow of the life that it portrays. But unlike a food delivery boy whose future in this line of work relies heavily on pleasing customers and receiving five-star ratings, Nandita Das does not overly sugar-coat the film's central message.
She refrains from grandstanding and unnecessary flourishes. With the production design on point, the Bhubaneswar ambience captured to perfection and the cinematography by Ranjan Palit giving the inner and outer worlds of the migrant protagonist the angularities that it needs, Zwigato hits home with equal measures of power and pathos.