Zwigato movie review: Nandita Das’ third directorial is such a powerful mirror to today’s India, which has always grappled with staggering disparities between the haves and have-nots.
Zwigato is the story of Manas Singh Mahto, a gig worker who lives in Bhubaneswar with his family. It is also the story of an India that has been invisibilised in Hindi cinema, and even more crucially, from the national discourse controlled and shaped by the all-powerful TV media. When India is shining, why speak of the darkness of those who have no jobs, or are yoked to endless ‘shifts’ with no time for a meal, or a well-deserved time-out?
And that’s why Nandita Das’ third directorial is such a powerful mirror to today’s India, which has always grappled with staggering disparities between the haves and have-nots, and where no amount of papering over can hide the dismal fact that that gap has only widened during the pandemic. Or that over ‘five crore Indians are unemployed today’, a figure flung out at Manas by an unsympathetic character, when he complains about the heartlessness of the gig econom: no one will care if he quits because there are millions lining up for his job.
Countless Indians like Manas (Kapil Sharma) and his wife Pratima (Shahana Goswami) live with those anxieties on a daily basis. Will Manas be able to make the requisite number of deliveries to be able to get the requisite number of stars? How do you best an ‘app’ which controls your every waking moment, and where you can be downgraded to zero at the whims and fancies of those you deliver to? The fact that a gig worker can do the downgrading himself (of said customer) is no consolation for Manas, who tells a flint-eyed female Zwigato superior (Sayani Gupta): ‘Aap partner-partner karte hain, par paisa toh aap hi banaate hain’ (you call us partners, but you are the ones who make the money)’.
Other truth bombs are strewn through the film, which does sometimes find itself being weighed under the series of bald statements, but which never feels less than real. A ‘delivery partner’ called Aslam doesn’t dare to go into a temple, because he is scared: ‘mujhe darr lagta hai’, he tells Manas. A political activist’s (Swanand Kirkire) protest meeting where he speaks of the brazen entitlement of the rich and powerful is drowned out by loudspeakers as the police stands by, and a participant is dragged away. Where is he taken, and will we ever see him again? The brief scene plays out in the background, but leaves an impact. Brute force is at play, and we are mute spectators of the growing polarisation in the country.
Pratima finds herself being the buffer between the mounting frustrations of her husband and children, who are plugged into the aspirational India that will presumably be able to get them out of the precarity of their parents’ lives. Will Pratima’s rebellious act of stepping out of home for a cleaner’s job at a mall or the occasional massage she offers to well-heeled ladies who live in fancy high-rise flats be able to get her children the smartphone they want? Will Manas, whose roots in the village are still strong, will make peace with the alienation living in a city poses? Or will the employment opportunities that a city presents, even if it is a mirage-like government scheme that Manas keeps searching for, be able to make up for that?
Being shot in Bhubaneswar, where you can see the old and the new jostling next to each other, as well as hear locals speak Oriya, brings freshness and flavour to the film. Both Kapil Sharma and Shahana Goswami are terrific: him as Everyman, who doesn’t want his wife to work, and yet is open to learning the value of pragmatism, and her managing the tricky balancing act between being supportive and pro-active.
Das’ strongly political film, which she has co-written with Samir Patil, takes care not to become too miserabilist even as it doesn’t wish away the burdens of its characters. What it does is ask us to bear witness, and it does that very well.