'I am less hesitant as a director': Nandita Das

Zwigato is Das’s third feature film as director after Firaaq (2008) and Manto (2018)

70-Kapil-Sharma-with-Nandita-Das Director’s trust: Actor and anchor Kapil Sharma with Nandita Das during the promotion of Zwigato.

Actor and director Nandita Das’s latest film Zwigato has released in limited theatres. Based on India’s gig economy, it throws light on the staggering disparities between the haves and the have-nots. At the heart of the film is the story of Bhubaneswar-based gig worker Manas Singh Mahto (Kapil Sharma), and his wife, Pratima (Shahana Goswami). Mahto, a food delivery agent, gets into the profession after losing his job as a factory floor supervisor. Through Mahto’s everyday struggles, the film makes a commentary on the invisible lives.

Zwigato is Das’s third feature film as director after Firaaq (2008) and Manto (2018). In an interview with THE WEEK, Das talks about her new film and the gig economy.

Q/ Did the idea of the film come to you during the pandemic?

A/ Yes. In fact, it was the trigger for the film. During the pandemic, we, for our own convenience, became more and more dependent on the gig workers and less and less aware of their struggles. All of us ordered [food] during the pandemic, and seldom did we thank them, or rated them, or even acknowledged their existence. The film is also about many small things that were hidden in plain sight even before the pandemic.

Q/ What aspects of the gig economy fascinated and disturbed you?

A/ What has been intriguing is that there is a lack of anger, even though many of the riders admit to their struggles. They are aware of the long hours they have to work to make so little… how rise in petrol prices plays havoc in their lives. Yet, they remain optimistic about eventually getting better jobs. Most see gig work only as an interim means to earn a living or as an additional income.

There were many things that were quite shocking as we delved deeper into the subject. What moved me the most was their daily struggle―the slow chipping away of their dignity. They cannot say or demand anything as they are in the service industry and the ratings make them very vulnerable.

Q/ How did you visualise Sharma bringing the script to life?

A/ He looked the part and that was a good starting point. Through our interactions I knew there was a simplicity, a vulnerability and something real and rooted that would make the character of Manas very believable. I was just worried about Punjabi coming out of him! But he was up for the challenge. I gave him all his dialogues recorded by a person in Ranchi who said them in the correct dialect. He not only did it but also spoke much slower as the easterners do, as opposed to his racing Punjabi! He completely submitted to the process.

Q/ You have written, directed and co-produced the film. How challenging was it?

A/ I am a hands-on director, and I am completely involved in every department through the entire journey. And that’s the challenge and the fun of it! It is easier to be spontaneous with a script and dialogues that one has written, and so I can edit, delete, add at will! We shot at one go and finished in less than a month. For me work and life are not two separate entities. They are one, and, therefore, each of the things I do affects me as a person and my own personality affects my choices and work.

Q/ Your last directorial was Manto in 2018. Is it a conscious decision to have long gaps between projects?

A/ Acting, writing, directing and producing… all have happened rather organically. I just worked with my instinct, dipping into my life experiences and observations that have, over the years, become an impulse. The compulsion to engage and find creative ways to share my concerns is what drives me. But I am not trained in any of them. So I take time to write and rewrite, put a project together. Also, I have done many other things in between the films in the last 14 years, including becoming a mother! Now I am a less hesitant director. I have multiple interests and concerns, and I feel no pressure to prove myself. I will also continue doing other things of interest like acting and my social advocacy work.

Q/ Tell us about the influences and inspirations that have moulded your own storytelling over time.

A/ My parents are innately inclusive and altruistic and I’m glad they had a significant influence on me while I was growing up. In college, I had begun performing as an actor with Safdar Hashmi and his street theatre group, Jan Natya Manch. We would travel and perform at different places. I did my master’s in social work, which doesn’t necessarily make you a better social worker, but it exposes you to multiple different realities. I also worked in a couple of NGOs and they told me about human experiences and contexts that I was not so familiar with.

But the biggest influence is life itself. I am driven by the stories I want to tell. And these stories emerge from my work in various spheres of my life. Whether it’s my social advocacy work, the people I meet, the points of view I get to hear―all impact the subjects that I choose to make my films on, or the characters I want to portray.

Q/ When will we next get to see you as an actor?

A/ For the last few years, I have been busy directing films which have been all-consuming. But I did manage to squeeze in a guest appearance in Shaad Ali’s Call My Agent: Bollywood and in Venu Udugula’s Virata Parvam. I am certainly not opposed to acting but probably have become even more choosy. I have been getting a fair amount of acting work and now there are a couple that I am considering. So, hopefully, you will see me in front of the camera, too.