Saturday 18 March 2023

Delivery hero: "Zwigato"

Nandita Das's third feature as director,
Zwigato, turns out to be a Loach-like slice-of-life centred on a driver wearing himself thin feeding others via a Deliveroo-style phone app. It opens, however, with a most un-Loachian prologue: a dream sequence in which our put-upon hero Manas (Kapil Sharma) finds himself aboard a driverless runaway train. Welcome to the gig economy, in India as it is elsewhere: relentless and only picking up speed, impressive to behold from a safe distance, but also surely heading off the rails, with potentially deadly consequences. You can see the fascination this subject holds for filmmakers, as an entirely new way of working - as new as, say, the automated factory line at the moment of Chaplin's Modern Times or the open-plan office circa 1960's The Apartment. Superficially, at least, becoming a Zwigato driver offers unprecedented freedom and choice. (As a corporate exec played by Sayani Gupta asks of Manas late on, "Do you know how lucky you are?") Time and again, Das's camera returns to the sight of Manas puttering around his native Bhubaneswar on a battered motorbike anyone who's seen certain neo-realist dramas will fear is destined to conk out at any second. The job gets this little man into the cavernous homes and offices of the rich and famous, offering at least the illusion of the rich and famous, a glimpse of the big brass ring. But it also demands Manas and his colleagues submit to an unprecedented level of control: an obeisance to the orders barked out by one's own phone, only a finite number of optouts and pauses, an inbuilt requirement to get from A to B within strict time parameters. In their black-and-yellow shirts, the Zwigato boys are at once marked targets and overexercised worker bees, zigzagging noisily around in the pursuit of finite resources of nectar. (And unless I've missed some groundbreaking new research, bees don't have to worry about star ratings.)

The film marks a new way of working for Das, too. For starters, this was a Covid-era shoot, contextualising the mask Manas has to don to enter certain drop-off points, and reminding us how essential delivery firms became to everyday life from March 2020 onwards. Despite the lingering spectre of Covid, the film remains a good deal lighter in tone than its maker's ambitious early works, which encompassed an evocation of the Gujarat riots (2008's Firaaq) and a biopic of a revered poet (2018's Manto). The new film is driven by the repartee, joshing but with an edge, which Manas shares with his fellow deliverymen as they hop from location to location, and by our hero's varied interactions with his customers, some of whom actually prove - gasp - grateful to have hot food brought to their doorstep in the middle of a pandemic. The Loach that Zwigato reminds you of is the Loach of Looking for Eric and The Angels' Share, gently, skilfully slipping any editorial in under the cover of an overriding empathy: at one point, Manas - who never strikes us as an especially deep political thinker - stumbles into a rally blocking his path, and is forced (as we are) to consider the jawdropping fact that just five people own three-quarters of India's wealth. As with India, we conclude, so goes the world: even a cursory glimpse at the business pages will inform you consolidation is the name of the corporate game nowadays. But what of those obliged by basic human need to do consolidation's grunt work?

Like its protagonist, Zwigato works incrementally, and only around the hour mark do you realise how deeply these genial scenes have touched you, and how attached you've become to the people Das puts up on screen. That's a tribute to the film's calmly unemphatic direction, the attention it pays to the stop-start rhythms of the new working day - and, indeed, of the new working life, underlined by a subplot involving Manas's wife Pratima (Shahana Goswami, who has something of her director's own sensitivity and warmth before the camera), quietly striving to find employment of her own. In the lead role, Sharma - the comedian who hosts one of Indian television's biggest light entertainment shows - is almost unrecognisable from his showbiz persona, his stubble (no time to shave) and sleepy eyes contributing to a general air of heaviness that counts against the character as he endeavours to deliver in thirty minutes or less. It's a heaviness that only lifts in Zwigato's final moments, as Manas and Pratima repurpose that sputtering motorbike for leisure and pleasure rather than grinding work, and Das and cinematographer Ranjan Palit arrive at an image that connects resonantly with the events of that prologue. The result feels instinctively like the most crowdpleasing film of Das's directorial career, but Zwigato will also likely wield a lot of soft power away from the multiplex: its expression of solidarity with the working man and woman can only make you think twice before hammering that "confirm order" button - and it's all but guaranteed to make you a better tipper.

Zwigato is now playing in selected cinemas.

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