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THERE IS A NEATNESS with which Zwigato fits into Nandita Das’ filmography. In her short directorial career, spanning across three films till now, there runs a distinct trajectory: to render voice to the voiceless. In Firaaq (2008), she centered the narrative on the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The survivors, from both religions, filled the frame, wrestling with fear and resentment. This argument holds true even in Manto (2018), a biopic on the writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Despite his famed outspokenness, the time of the film’s release intersected with the growing intolerance of dissent in the country, relegating the likes of the author to a minority. As a thematic extension, her latest outing Zwigato, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, is framed around those who surround us everyday but are invisible to the naked eye. They are acknowledged in parts, through and because of their labour.
Das’ perceptive eye misses nothing. The daily, insidious inequity. A high, swanky building has separate lifts for the residents and the workers. A mall at night, empty from the outside, houses workers inside. They scrub to retain the sheen of the mirrors but the escalators don’t work for them. They need to climb a machine which was built for convenience. After a night of revelry and inebriation, food orders are wrongly placed. The delivery man arrives and we snap at them, this time in our senses. We– the privileged class is the center of interest in Das’ third outing although the story is about the people thrown into the gig economy.
MANAS SINGH MAHTO (Kapil Sharma) and Pratima (Shahana Goswami) live in Bhubaneshwar. They are originally from Jharkhand. During the pandemic, Manas lost his job as a floor manager. Months of unemployment later, he was hired as a delivery man at Zwigato (a portmanteau of Zomato and Swiggy). But what appeared as an autonomous arrangement soon revealed to be modern-day slavery. He is tied to his phone, not out of choice but out of compulsion. It buzzes with orders and he has to accept. It does not matter if he has had lunch or not, Manas can’t keep others hungry. A thoughtless drop in rating has grievous consequences; a false complaint can lead to suspension.
It is a marvel how deftly Das uses this premise to evoke compassion in the most fundamental sense, one that begins with being seen. In many ways, watching Zwigato feels like reckoning with the humaneness — and humanity — of those we treat as an end to our means. The moving icon on the phone bears a face. It is equally admirable how the filmmaker achieves this with a fuss-free approach, using neither melodrama nor emotional manipulation as crutches. As a result, a lot is achieved with very little.
Take for instance the subtle gender dynamics at play in the Mahto household. The daughter, though younger, is more entrenched in domesticity than her older brother. The latter, on the other hand, belongs to a generation where mobile phones represent social mobility. Unlike his father who is enslaved to technology, he seeks to utilise it by making Reels. Even the character of Pratima is wonderfully depicted. There is a tiny scene where, after getting a job at a mall, she admires herself in the mirror wearing the uniform. It is an unembellished moment which at once gives a peek into her personhood and desire. Goswami is compelling as Pratima, holding her own without making her defiance apparent. She wants to work, to contribute to the family and ease her husband’s pressure. But she also wants to do it for herself. The actor uses her physicality to render herself invisible in moments and shines in silences. She is ably complemented by Sharma who inhabits the role with aching sincerity. Years of watching him on television has lent a familiarity to his persona, extending to the way he looks and talks. But to his credit, he weaponises the familiarity to become an everyman. His name is not revealed till the longest time but it is not difficult to imagine who he is supposed to be — the man we shut doors on after hastily taking the packet of food from him. He is who we track on phones and complain about when late. In our technology-cushioned world, he is who we forget to distinguish between effort and appliance.
But this staid strictness is also what undoes the film to a large extent. Much like her previous iterations, Das does not polish the finer nuances but leans on making larger points — the rampant unemployment, the religious bigotry, the caste discrimination. Each bears a scene. A Muslim delivery boy requests Manas to take his order since he cannot enter a temple. An official refuses to give employment forms to two young men without revealing the cause. The latter, while storming out of the office, looks at Ambedkar’s picture (not shown but implied) and says, “Baba Saheb, see nothing has changed”. Pratima’s colleagues in the mall, entrusted with cleaning the space, include one who has a BA degree. These are all pivotal points but it somehow never comes together as one story. There is also an unnecessary scene of a politician (Swanand Kirkire) highlighting the employment situation in the country. There is no context to the scene and the subtext is not required. In the broader picture, Zwigato could have done away with it and it wouldn’t have mattered.
As an upshot of this, the primary story feels out of tune. The depiction of Manas and Pratima’s marriage appears stilted. It is evident that they are in love. As Manas gets more embroiled in work, their relationship suffers. When Pratima decides to take up a job, his male ego gets hurt. He dissuades her from taking it, she stands her ground. But the portrayal feels too rushed, with nothing coming out of the conflicts or the resolutions.
I understand the idea is to present the day in their lives. On paper, it is as noble as it is due. But Das’ heavy-handed and unsentimental slant fails to lend them heft. They never become caricatures but are also not fleshed-out enough to be people. We see their faces through their labour but we don’t really see the story they deserve. They become symbols of a system we are all complicit in nourishing.