A scene in Zwigato reminded me of a conversation I had overheard in a shack in Goa. Sitting beside me, a middle-aged man, a caretaker, was talking to his friend about his job in Dubai. At one point, he recounted an incident that left him enraged. The house owner, who was out travelling, had told this man to sleep on the living room floor. When he woke up in the night and checked the bedroom, he saw someone sleeping on the bed… a dog.
In Nandita Das’s film, Pratima (Shahana Goswami), a part-time masseuse in Bhubaneshwar, reaches a residential building. She notices the separate lift for domestic workers. As she walks towards her lift, she glances back to notice a resident entering the ‘privileged’ lift with her… pup. The scene doesn’t milk Pratima’s pathos; it gets over as soon as we realise what’s happened. Because Zwigato isn’t a movie about ‘hidden’ realities as much as realities so ubiquitous that we pretend they don’t exist. It’s a story of invisible people whose identities matter only when they are punished.
Pratima is married to one such invisible man, Manas Singh Mahto (Kapil Sharma). We don’t even know his name for a long time. He’s simply a “Delivery Partner” for Zwigato, a food delivery app. Manas doesn’t have a conventional boss or an office. He lives on the road, obeying his phone. Whenever it beeps – indicating a new order – Manas must leave everything and scoot, including his own lunch. The pay is meagre; the petrol is expensive. He lives on his customers’ whims – a series of low ratings can suspend him for a week.
The drama makes it clear that technology has just changed the ‘optics’ of working-class people – they wear a t-shirt, own a bike, and (purportedly) control their timings – because their identities have continued to remain precarious, now reduced to the taps of our fingers. The software itself has become the new slave driver – one that offers no scope for discussion or negotiation. Or, as Manas puts it, “Ghulami yahan bhi hai, bas maalik nahin dikhta [There’s slavery here as well; you just can’t see the master].”
Given that the gig economy is so entrenched in our lives – via Uber, Ola, Dunzo, Blinkit, Zomato, Swiggy, you name it – it feels remarkable that a movie like Zwigato took so long to release. Or given that Bollywood has been so indifferent to working-class people for so long, it feels like a minor miracle that a film like this has released. Which is why the smallest of scenes carry a memorable poignant force: Pratima admiring her uniform for a new job in front of the mirror (as a cleaner in a swanky mall), the delivery partners counting (and recounting) the number of zeros in Zwigato’s annual revenue, a man chasing Manas on the bike asking if he can deliver orders on a bicycle.
But for someone like Manas, even breadcrumbs are buffets. A factory floor manager before losing his job, he’s at least employed. A Zwigato executive (Sayani Gupta), referring to the rampant unemployment in the country, asks him, “Do you know how lucky you are?” Even though Zwigato ostensibly tells the story of one family, its panoramic gaze affords it a much larger sweep, encompassing the most intense scramble – and compassion – at the bottom of the pyramid.
Controlled by an automated voice on the phone, Manas, an island of a worker and a man of the road, keeps encountering people as helpless as him. A Muslim Zwigato delivery partner, for instance, requests him to carry an order inside a temple on his behalf. Later, Manas goes to an internet café to find out about a government scheme that promises jobs. The man at the café opens a browser to help Manas out but he doesn’t know how to spell “scheme” – neither does Manas. He’s befriended a petrol pump attendant, but on a bad day, he lashes out at him for no reason. This is a sharp illustration of a splintered country – the affluent India and the others – where the latter only have each other: to help, commiserate and insult.
But, at times, the movie also struggles to find a pleasant rhythm. In an early scene, we find out about a blue-collar worker immolating himself near the same petrol pump a few days ago. A young man comes in a jeep and starts harassing the pump attendant – Manas’s friend – about the incident. This strict demarcation between the haves and the have-nots, the cruel and the hapless, feels abrupt and forced, as it springs without context. Ditto Manas or Pratima’s other interactions with their customers, which don’t go beyond ‘rich people are cruel’. Sometimes it swings the other way: a middle-aged woman, getting a massage from Pratima, becomes a bit too friendly in less than a minute.
Sometimes a more literal-minded scene elbows its way into the film. We get a fiery speech by a pro-labour leader (Swanand Kirkire) that, again, doesn’t say anything new. Even Manas’s connection to this scene is at best tangential – he’s there to deliver pamphlets to his friend. Zwigato is also hurt by sporadic stagnancy at the levels of both tonal variations and characters’ relationships. Its arrow-like focus imbues Manas’s story with an immersive ‘day in the life’ feel, but it struggles to accommodate enough playful scenes – or ones that contradict the expected tenor of the story – that would have given this drama a more rounded quality. Manas and Pratima’s bond, too, largely follows a flat line. Sure, there are snatches that hint at his masculine insecurity – as he isn’t comfortable with Pratima working – but it’s neither resolved nor segues into other facets that make this couple compelling.
The lead performers, however, are consistently credible. Sharma sheds his skin of a TV entertainer and sinks into Manas’s psyche, constantly eliciting an urgent emotional response. He doesn’t try to ‘act’ his way out of the character either. There are no obvious affectations in his portrayal via dialogues or mannerisms that make us pity him. It’s simply one man versus the universe one ride, one day, at a time. Sharma is most effective (and poignant) while battling the onslaught of class-divide – against the few masters he can see, either a rude customer or a Zwigato executive. Goswami too, a naturally light performer, glides through her role.
Film critic Roger Ebert once called cinema a “machine that generates empathy”. It’s where Zwigato excels the most. Several scenes reminded me of my own little interactions with delivery partners: their requests to rate the service five stars (which would skip my mind at times), the feeling of annoyance (later followed by guilt) when they couldn’t find my address, or of unexpected bonding (I once received an order during the 2019 World Cup wearing the Indian team’s jersey, and the delivery partner told me that he used to be a district cricket player).
Zwigato humanises the pixels on our smartphone screens, reminding us that their stories don’t begin or end with serving us. It also reminds us, without being didactic, to step out of our own heads, our constant numbness, and see the world around us. A drama as pertinent as ever, it tells us that just because we’re surrounded by countless stories of struggles doesn’t mean that we forget to observe or listen — or feel.
This article was first published on The Wire.