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It's been 87 years since Charlie Chaplin released "Modern Times". The film, a satirical black comedy, told the story of a factory worker and his struggle to survive in the modern, industrialised world in the face of the Great Depression. Little seems to have changed, rather only the means of exploitation of workers have changed.
And when it comes to gig workers, the conditions are far more grim since they're not full-time employees and are devoid of any benefits and security that a permanent job brings.
Filmmaker-actress Nandita Das' new film "Zwigato" tells the human story of a gig worker who works with the titular food delivery platform. Nandita told IANS that the idea of the film came into existence during a discussion about growing unemployment and the complexity of gig work with her publisher friend Samir Patil.
The filmmaker said: "We then began writing a short film about a day in the life of a delivery rider. Then Sameer (Nair), CEO of Applause Entertainment, who was to produce it, nudged me to expand it for a feature film. Initially, I felt the subject would not immerse me enough, but as I began to delve deeper into it, I was drawn to the human aspects of this collision of new technology and the life of the workers, who are just a cog in the wheel."
While the gig economy has been functioning since the 21st century as different kinds of freelance jobs emerged, of late, it has gone mainstream with the advent of the high-speed Internet coupled with the pandemic. Services like Zomato, Swiggy, and Dunzo have not just brought comfort to the people but have also strengthened India's GDP.
Every day, countless delivery partners and cab drivers snake through the roads of Indian cities to feed people or to help them with transit and delivery of their goods. Whatever be the conditions, bad weather, traffic congestion, festivals, the machinery of India's gig economy keeps running without fail.
But, when one looks at the microscopic level, it paints a different picture of the humans behind this machinery, and unlike machines, humans wear out, battle anxiety, mental burden and financial insecurities on a daily front.
Nandita said: "With the rise of the gig economy, the struggle between man and machine that Chaplin depicted in 'Modern Times' has now shifted to one between man and algorithms. So 'Zwigato' is a story about the relentlessness of life, but not without its silver lining."
"During the pandemic, we consumers, for our own convenience, became more and more dependent on the gig workers and less and less aware of their struggle. All of us have ordered during Covid-19 and seldom did we thank them or rate them or even acknowledge their existence. While this was the trigger point, 'Zwigato' is also about our normalised biases of class, caste, and gender."
All of these subtly find their way into the film, making the invisible, visible. And, a huge credit for blending these themes into the narrative goes to the solid research work that Nandita put up. The team invested two years in the research of the film. The more the mind brews the primary data, the merrier is the output.
Nandita added: "Before starting the film, I understood the world of incentives and algorithms as little as my protagonist did! As I delved deeper, I became more and more fascinated and disturbed by what I got to know about the gig economy. We gathered facts as well as personal stories by interviewing many riders. Their struggles, dilemmas, fears and aspirations helped me understand their world closely."
Nandita and her team also spoke to ex-employees of food delivery companies and in confidence, also with senior managers in analytics departments of food delivery apps.
"These conversations enabled us to understand the shifts that are made in the app and algorithms and the thought process behind such changes. While all of it is not in the film, it was important to understand how things work in the gig economy," Nandita said.
"I was surprised by the fact that a small change in the size of the 'zone' from where the orders can come from -- the invisible button that all of us click on -- makes a huge difference to them.
"The farther away the deliveries are, the more the riders have to spend on fuel. They get a petrol fee for going out of their zone but not for returning, and this is not just in India but everywhere in the world."
Asked about her choice of casting a television superstar in the form of Kapil Sharma for a humane story like this, the filmmaker said that the decision was driven by her instinct. "Casting Kapil was no act of bravery, I found him to be natural, uninhibited and candid. I had never seen his show but in the clip I saw he felt real and right for my character, Manas."
"I reached out to him on an impulse, not fully knowing if he would be right for the part or if he would be open to doing the film. He promptly responded. And the first time we met, we knew we wanted to work together. Then we had many interactions and rehearsals that convinced me that he would perfectly represent the common man that he no longer was in real life," Nandita told IANS.
She also said that in this case working with a superstar came with no limitation, "Casting is extremely crucial in a film. If the characters are believable that is when the audience takes that leap of faith and travels with the characters on their journeys. Looking the part is really 50 per cent of casting. So it was not a limitation for me at all. And for Kapil to do something different from what he has been doing was in fact exciting and not limiting at all."
For Nandita, the biggest concern was "not being able to take out his (Kapil) Punjabiness", but Kapil was up for the challenge.
About how they took care of the character's linguistics, she said: "I gave him all his dialogues in the Jharkhand accent, recorded by a person in Ranchi, in the correct dialect. In any case, I didn't want the accent to be too pronounced. Kapil not only did it but also spoke much slower as the easterners do, as opposed to his racing Punjabi."
The essence of Nandita's film is empathy and she feels that it is unfortunate that empathy is not typically taught to us as children.
"Some of us have been fortunate enough to grow up in a more empathetic environment and have learned from observing our parents, friends, and others display empathy. As our society becomes more consumerist and individualistic, we are likely to care less about others," she said.
Nandita signed off on a note of hope, saying: "Nonetheless, I believe that most people desire to be empathetic, and when they watch a film like 'Zwigato', it stirs something within them and creates a sense of empathy for the characters. That has been the response I have largely received and nothing warms my heart more knowing that the intent with which I made the film is reaching the audiences."
"Zwigato" is now playing in cinemas.