Nandita Das, Sameer Nair on Busan Selection Zwigato: The Struggle Between Man and Algorithms

After its world premiere in Toronto, Nandita Das’ “Zwigato” has its Asian premiere in Busan’s A Window on Asian Cinema strand.

An acclaimed actor with credits including “Fire,” “Kannathil Muthamittal” and “Kamli,” Das made her directorial debut with “Firaaq” (2008), which debuted at Toronto. Her next film as director, “Manto” (2018), bowed at Cannes.

“Zwigato,” her third outing in the director’s seat, also bowed at Toronto. It began life as a short film that was to be part of an anthology produced by India’s Applause Entertainment. That project didn’t come to fruition, but Applause chief Sameer Nair convinced Das to expand the idea into a feature, which she did during the course of India’s first two COVID-19 lockdowns. The film, a satire on the gig economy, follows a factory manager, who after losing his job, becomes a courier for the food delivery app Zwigato.

“As I began to delve deeper into it, I was drawn to the human aspects of this mashup of high technology and the life of the workers, who are just a cog-in-the-wheel. 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,” Das told Variety.

“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. Following a food delivery rider and his family, over four days, tells the story of this new urban India. The film is about many small things that are hidden in plain sight,” Das added.

The cast includes popular talk show host Kapil Sharma, playing against type, and acclaimed actor Shahana Goswami (“A Suitable Boy”), who previously starred in “Firaaq.” Goswami’s character is also forced to work to make ends meet.

“What appealed to me besides the obvious lures of working again with Nandita and the script she envisioned, was the character of Pratima who is so full of innocent hope and excited to experience a new life legitimised by the difficult conditions of her reality, despite the fact that her work requires cleaning toilets in a mall,” Goswami told Variety.

Nair told Variety: “We wanted to show both lenses – so there’s one about these unseen people whom we don’t know about and about the life they lead and their gig economy, but the other one is also from us as consumers. You get so easily irritated with a delivery guy who brings the wrong order or comes late, but, it’s a whole different world there and it’s important for a higher degree of consumer empathy towards all of these services. It’s not just about the big, bad corporate, it’s also about each one of us, and how we address this entire economy and this entire workforce.”

Applause, a division of the $45 billion Aditya Birla Group conglomerate, is best known as one of the leading producers supplying content to India’s leading streamers, including Disney+ Hotstar, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. The company is also producing films with an eye on the theatrical market.

“It is true that OTT [streaming] platforms have made it possible for a more democratic distribution of content and has a far wider reach. But as a filmmaker, I also want people to have a more immersive theatrical experience. There is something about the simultaneity of a personal and collective experience of watching a film in a dark hall. All the nuances that we painstakingly work on, be it in the story, picture, sound, music, performances etc. will be more visible. Having said that, increasingly the economics of releasing films in theatres seems feasible only for big budget films,” said Das.

“For me, a combination of a theatrical release and OTT will of course be ideal. But increasingly, audiences today are medium agnostic and are mostly driven by the story. ‘Zwigato,’ whilst set in India, is a global story, and we hope the film reaches out to as wide an audience as possible and that OTT does ensure,” Das added.

Nair said that Applause is looking “very, very actively” at releasing “Zwigato” theatrically.

Meanwhile, Busan is a happy hunting ground for Applause with the company’s very first film production, Aparna Sen’s “The Rapist,” winning the festival’s coveted Kim Ji-seok Award in 2021.

“It’s the right place to showcase cinema of this kind – you get the right kind of response. I think it’s a great platform,” said Nair.

“Zwigato” premieres Oct. 6 at Busan.

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