Four years after directing Manto, a Partition drama about freedom of speech that she made look contemporary, Nandita Das is back, this time turning the spotlight on new urban India. Zwigato, the Mumbai-born director’s new film, is about a food delivery rider negotiating a path paved with algorithms. Ahead of the film’s world premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) beginning on September 8, Das, who has directed such acclaimed films as Firaaq and Manto, talks to Faizal Khan about the making of Zwigato and responding to what is happening in society as an artiste. Edited excerpts:
What is the story of Zwigato? When did you start writing it and what was the point of departure?
The film explores the life of a former factory floor manager who loses his job during the pandemic. He then works as a food delivery rider, grappling with the app on his phone and the world of ratings and incentives. Simultaneously, his wife, a homemaker, begins to explore different work opportunities. The fear of these new experiences is coupled with the joy of a newfound independence.
It began as a discussion with my publisher friend Samir Patil, also a partner in my production company (Nandita Das Initiatives), about the growing unemployment and the complexity of gig work. Slowly, it took the shape of a short film about a day in the life of a delivery rider. Then (Applause Entertainment CEO) Sameer (Nair), who was to produce it, pushed me to make it into a feature. And here we are. With the rise of gig economy, the struggle between man and machine that Charlie Chaplin depicted in Modern Times has shifted to one between man and algorithms. Zwigato is about our normalised biases of class, caste and gender… all subtly have found their way into the film, making the invisible, visible. Zwigato is a story of new urban India and the relentlessness of life, but not without its silver linings.
What was the process of filmmaking? How different it is from your other films?
This is a story that was born out of a conversation with a friend about the gig economy. As I delved deeper into it, I became more and more fascinated and disturbed by what I got to know. The protagonists, Manas and Pratima, are both endearing and flawed. It is a slice-of-life film where the treatment is candid and life-like. The male protagonist is played by Kapil Sharma and the female protagonist is played by the amazing versatile actor, Shahana Goswami (Firaaq, Bombay Begums). Apart from them and a handful of actors, all are from Odisha, with varying degrees of acting experience.
Where is the story shot and how many months it took for the shooting?
The film was shot in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, over a period of 25 days.
What were the challenges to move from a period drama (Manto) to a contemporary story?
I am instinctively attracted to stories that are a mirror to our times. I have only done two films, and both came out of a compulsion to tell those stories. This one had a different inception, but the process of every film is exciting and challenging. I was so exhausted after doing a period film that took me more than six years. After the release, I got many offers to do period films. People are quick at type casting. I wanted to do a simple slice of life after that. But fundamentally, my concerns haven’t changed, and they reflect in all my films. The context, the story and the characters are, of course, going to be different in every film.
Your second film came a decade after the first. Zwigato has taken only four years after Manto, with a short film in between. Is the turbulent times we live in hastening your work as an artiste to address the concerns?
I have been a hesitant actor and a hesitant director. The gaps have decreased on their own! My instinct is my guiding force, and I try to listen to it. Directing for me is not a career but more a means to respond to what disturbs me or what I see around myself. I have multiple interests and concerns, but thankfully without the pressure of proving myself or fearing the consequences. But yes, I am now doing more work. The next one is finalised.
How did the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) selection happen?
It means a lot to me personally, as I have debuted at TIFF both as an actor and director, with Fire and Firaaq, respectively. Over the years, several other films have taken me to the festival, including Manto in 2018. While the story of Zwigato is set in India, I hope the universality of the theme will resonate with the discerning and varied audience that the festival attracts from all over the world. The response a film gets at an A-listed festival also impacts the buzz it creates within the country. I make films because I itch to say something, and so the more people it reaches, the happier I am. For now, I am excited that the Zwigato journey is starting at TIFF.
India at TIFF 2022
- Zwigato by Nandita Das
- Kacchey Limbu by Shubham Yogi
- Tora’s Husband By Rima Das
- To Kill a Tiger (documentary) by Nisha Pahuja
- This Place by V T Nayani
- What’s Love Got To Do With It? by Shekhar Kapur
- The Chase (short film) by Gurjeet Kaur Bassi
TIFF 2022 International Highlights
- Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues (documentary) by Sacha Jenkins, USA
- Baba (short film) by Mbithi Masya, Kenya
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 5) by Bruce Miller, Elisabeth Moss, USA
- Love and Mathematics by Claudia Sainte-Luce, Mexico