Zwigato Review: A Relevant, Elegant and Dull Story Starring Kapil Sharma

Directed by Nandita Das, the film’s saving grace is Shahana Goswami
Zwigato Review: A Relevant, Elegant and Dull Story Starring Kapil Sharma

Director: Nandita Das
Writers: Nandita Das, Samir Patil
Cast: Kapil Sharma, Shahana Goswami

Zwigato fits snugly into director Nandita Das’s filmography, on the heels of Firaaq (2008), set in post-Godhra Gujarat and Manto (2018), the biography of the acerbic, irreverent, iconic journalist and writer. There is a flat righteousness with which Das makes her movies. They are relevant, elegant, and dull; their cinematic inertia coming from the force of intention, not a force of feeling. You endure her films, like you endure a street play or a matter-of-fact documentary because they seem important. Many might even call these projects brave — and they do seem more like projects than films. That they are important, that they are brave has no bearing on their cinematic grip. Intentions rarely have that effect. 

Set in Bhubaneswar, Zwigato is a portrait of Manas Singh (Kapil Sharma), one of the delivery men of the titular Zwigato, an app that is meant to remind us of Zomato and Swiggy. It blares out a shrill alarm when an order is placed for the delivery man to accept. If you take a selfie with a customer, it gives the delivery man a tip. I say delivery man because we only see men delivering. 

Manas used to work at a factory, as a supervisor, a more “respectable”, well paying job. Post-pandemic, Manas’s majboori (desperation) thrusts him into the gig economy, to take this job — a majdoori (labour), which involves delivering to the house of the principal of his daughter’s English medium school, walking into apartment complexes that have separate lifts for delivery people, into apartments where drunken orders were placed by entitled people. 

His wife, Pratima (Shahana Goswami), tries to take some of this economic burden by beginning a job as a mall’s cleaning lady, while also giving massages to women on the side. She meets rich people — one nice, one terrible. While she is made to enter a different elevator in an apartment complex, she, too, at her home reserves a different cup for the garbage collectors who ask for water. The algebra of niceness, of exclusion, has to be balanced, doesn’t it?

Pratima and Manas, along with his mother, and their two kids, cut a figure of a family that is poor but thriving. They don’t seem emotionally depleted as they are financially wanting.  

To watch Zwigato now, when unemployment in India has ripped through the roof, when news of mass layoffs keeps burning up the trending cycle, is to watch a contemporary portrait, the rush of relevance keeping the dry treatment of the film afloat. What is a dry treatment? One where the film is gazing at sadness, happiness with the same distant gaze. There is even a brief, awkwardly staged, incomplete aside where we move into a political rally for labourers, filled with the puffy rhetoric and empty promises which usually provoke something — a temporary sense of hope? A sense of purpose? An inspired hurrah? Das isn’t interested in any of these possibilities, looking at her protagonist’s life unfold like a politically conscious fly on the wall. 

Kapil Sharma’s performance brings pathos to the forefront. In a powerful scene, played out casually, where he confronts his boss (Sayani Gupta), he is made to confront both the perks of the job and its violence, the gifts and the gaffes of capitalism. Das frames his desperation as angsty, not entirely virtuous, not entirely reasonable, but not entirely unreasonable either. A delicate scene, this one. 

But unlike the gossamer tenderness of moments in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) when a husband grapples with the wife taking up the economic burden of the family, here, there is something bland, almost edgeless in the staging of Zwigato, especially Manas’s reluctance to Pratima’s work. (I have been told that in the version that played at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there was a sex scene that seems to have found itself in the editor’s dustbin as the film made landfall in India.) 

A forceful directorial hand is apparent right from the first frame — a bizarre dream sequence. Cinematographer Ranjan Palit’s shaky camera and Sagar Desai’s endlessly, needlessly strumming score, give the film a shaky sheen. It feels incomplete. Like the reach far exceeded the grasp. When the film ends, a feel-good abruptness lingers.  

There is a Muslim and a Dalit cameo, people whose existence is to show them despairing. The problem of a righteous gaze is that you are unable to see the oppressed as joyous, too. You can only project pathos. Das, who has worked under Marxist playwrights like Safdar Hashmi in Jana Natya Manch (Janam), has been unable to make the politics that she builds her film on feel palpable, provocative, personal. Her characters float around, sometimes feeling like ideas in search of a personality.  

What keeps the film from collapsing, however, is Shahana Goswami. Her eyes, steely and wide, her accent, breezy and unstudied, her gait, paced and aware. Her eyes dilating further when she is told that she will have to enter the men’s washrooms to clean it is both comical and tragic. Goswami has that electric presence that pulls at your gaze. When she is on screen, your eyes unconsciously dart towards her, even if all she is performing is silence. And in a film that wants to consciously make noise centrestage, this gilded, gripping silence makes for a more compelling companion.

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