By Rahul Desai
Zwigato is a difficult film to watch. There are glimpses of what it strives to be: An Indian version of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (2019). The anti-story of a blue-collar English family in the wake of the 2008 financial crash becomes the story of a Jharkhandi family in Bhubaneswar struggling to make ends meet in a pandemic-hit job market. The myth of the self-employed delivery driver is the nucleus again. Manas (Kapil Sharma), an ex-floor manager, is a new prisoner of the gig economy: He works as a food delivery rider for an app called Zwigato (no connection to Zomato, of course). Manas spends his days on his motorbike, skipping his own meals to make more deliveries, requesting selfies with clients to bump up his ratings, enslaved by an algorithm that insists he’s a ‘partner’. His wife, Pratima (Shahana Goswami), juggles her frantic home-making with part-time gigs as a home masseuse (the wife was a home-care nurse in Sorry We Missed You) and a mall cleaner. Together – but mostly not together – they navigate the fading chasm between the middle class and the working class in a system that’s built to invisibilize them.
On paper, Zwigato possesses all the elements of socially critical cinema. The family doubles up as the camera that clicks a snapshot of a nation fraught with cruel contradictions. Manas’ job offers a glimpse into disparate vignettes of a survivalist culture. From posh buildings and restaurants to modest buses and printing presses, the food orders take him – and us – across the board. The petrol-pump worker he chats with every morning excitedly tells him about a jobless man who used their petrol to burn himself alive. Manas drives away from a street-dweller who desperately asks if Zwigato allows bicycle deliveries. He stops by a fiery labour protest on his way home. Another time, he helps a Muslim delivery agent stranded at the entrance of a temple. He even finds himself waiting for a tip at the bungalow of his daughter’s school principal. He has surreal dreams (and nightmares) about applying for an elusive government scheme on a moving train. Pratima, on her part, travels to the homes of well-meaning but blindly privileged clients. One woman casually asks her if she can work on her husband; another rejects her services because she’s too ‘sweaty’ after a long commute. Both Manas and Pratima grapple with the illusions of being their own bosses, while confronting a world that’s both blissfully beyond them and painfully within their reach.
I like that Zwigato doesn’t aspire to be a tangible narrative. It’s just one day-in-the-life-of experience after another – and the no-frills rhythm is allowed to lie in the eyes of the beholder. The city of Bhubaneswar, too, is a refreshing diversion from the Gurugram(s) and Pune(s) that such movies tend to unfold in. The acting aids this unassuming palette. Kapil Sharma is uncharacteristically muted, evoking the journey of a migrant whose conflict is deeper because he is downgraded from a space of success. You sense that Manas perhaps reached Odisha with aspirations of a delivery job. That he became a floor manager only to ‘resort’ to the work that he had originally expected to do complicates his masculinity – he can’t handle the prospect of Pratima being both nurturer and provider. His patriarchy is therefore a consequence of his crisis. Shahana Goswami disappears into her role as Pratima, and does wonders with the body language of a woman whose love is a slice of her reluctant individualism. She doesn’t hope to ‘break free’ or accomplish lofty things. The film isn’t afraid to present them as imperfect people, united solely by the tragic perfections of prejudice.
The problem with Zwigato, however, is similar to that of Nandita Das’ previous films (Manto, Firaaq). The ideas – driven by the desire to make a broader statement – hijack the internal language of storytelling. Sequences work better than scenes, most of which unfurl like a means to an end. There are times when the two protagonists feel like the background of their own settings. If done right, of course, this might have been a profound metaphor for marginalization. But here it’s just a glitch in the craft. Most situations are staged awkwardly, almost as though the makers simply use Manas and Pratima as an excuse to deliver their own commentary. (Even the little arguments at home sound strained, like a hastily-written distraction from all the shots of Manas driving through the city). It often seems like the couple is belatedly inserted into a moment that already exists.
As a result, the execution feels rushed, and the viewer is left searching for some heart in a body of inert film-making. For instance, the camera treats Manas as an afterthought in an event that features Gul Panag as a promoter of an electric bike. He’s just there, on the periphery, like an actor who hasn’t been instructed enough. She rides away while giving a demo, and it’s obvious that the scene isn’t really sure about how to end. Ditto for Manas’ passing role in the protests, where it’s clear that the film is trying to convey a political moment without compromising on the personal. (It also looks like the crew had a rough time shooting on location during the pandemic; the logistical challenges undercut the shaky-camera aesthetic). At another point, Pratima’s chatty massage on a Bengali client is flooded with the music from an ice-skating performance unfolding on the television screen. It closes with the athlete reaching a crescendo while Pratima looks on – a jarring attempt to shape a feeling that needs no sound. A bit of urban tokenism creeps into the final few frames of the film as well; a curated the-show-must-go-on vibe derails the dry continuity of the family.
What all of this does is prevent Zwigato from humanizing itself. I’m not asking to be manipulated or moved by what’s happening on screen, but I was barely engaged. It’s one thing to be understated, it’s another to be underwhelming – and distant – for an audience that deserves a chance to detect the emotional integrity hidden within the sociopolitical integrity. The closest the film comes to this is when Manas visits a cyber cafe to buy a government form, only for half the (unemployed) locality to join under the pretext of helping him. An adult whose career is defined by an app watches, sadly, as the youth – now his competition – fails to spell “scheme” on the computer. Yet, seconds later, the scene collapses with all the clumsiness of a student leafing through books and newspapers to study for a practical exam.
Ken Loach has a way of constructing the humaneness of each moment; the social texture often supplies the intimacy of his characters. But Das forgets to bridge the gap between the two in Zwigato, making for a film that’s difficult to watch only because it’s one coat of paint away from being good. I was left with lessons about life in India, but very little learning about Indian living. After all, getting that parcel on time is futile if the food itself is bland.