Nandita Das’s feature film Zwigato starring comedian Kapil Sharma will be screened today at the Toronto International Film Festival. In a freewheeling chat with Das, the filmmaker spills the tea on her latest release, career takeaways so far, and everything in between. Excerpts.
From Firaaq to Manto and now the freshly-minted Zwigato, take us through your journey so far as a director.
Just as I stumbled upon acting, direction too was not part of my dream or design. It is more of a means to express my concerns. I am attracted to stories that are a mirror of our times. Be it Firaaq, Manto, or now Zwigato, they all were stories I felt compelled to tell.
I directed Firaaq in 2008 and then, 10 years later, it was Manto. I was exhausted from the long and grueling process of making a period film, set across two cities. After that, I wanted to do something small and simple but it wasn’t Zwigato. But then Covid hit us and the lockdown exposed us to new realities. And wanting to make a film about a food delivery rider and his family came out of that experience. Many of us became more and more dependent on the services provided by gig workers and no-contact deliveries further pushed them away from our bubbles. So we decided to tell their story.
The context, the story, and the characters of course change with every film, but at the core is the deep desire to unravel an aspect of the human condition and evoke empathy for the characters whose lives are being explored.
We’d love to know more about the thought processes that went into creating Zwigato?
Zwigato began as a discussion with my publisher friend Samir Patil, about the growing anxiety around unemployment and the complexity of gig work. Slowly, this conversation took the shape of a short film about a day in the life of a delivery rider. Then Sameer Nair (the producer from Applause Entertainment), nudged me to make it into a feature film. As I began to delve deeper into the subject, I was drawn to the tussle between technology and the life of the gig workers, who are a cog-in-the-wheel.
I wanted to keep the tone of the film very candid, organic, and life-like. The camera was a fly on the wall and handheld throughout, adding to the spontaneity of the scenes and performances. Apart from a handful of actors, all were taken from Odisha. They spoke the language they normally would speak and mostly wore their own clothes, bringing authenticity to the world of the film. I have tried to create a world that is all so familiar and yet for most, is hidden in plain sight.
I also wanted to set the film in a 2-tier city and not in one of the more seen metros. Being half Odiya, all my life, I have had to explain to people where Odisha is. So I thought it would be good to set it in Bhubaneswar, a city seldom seen in any film made outside of the state. It looks familiar, yet unique.
Roping in Kapil Sharma in the lead seems like a surprise choice. How did the casting process fall into place?
The pandemic’s dramatic impact on actor availability and shooting schedule over the past year had made casting for the film a nightmare. Then one day, Kapil Sharma popped up on my screen while surfing for something on the internet. I hadn’t seen his show, but from the snippets, I did see that his honesty, simplicity, and candor seemed perfect for the character I had been writing. And so, I reached out to him on an impulse, not fully knowing if he would be right for the part or if he would even be open to doing a film that is not a comedy. He promptly responded. And then we had many interactions and rehearsals that convinced me that he would perfectly represent the common man that he no longer was in real life!
How was it working with Kapil?
The experience of working with Kapil was wonderful. He has a natural charm and he got into the skin of the character quite effortlessly. He is easy and friendly with his co-actors, disarming everyone around him. He had always told me that he would completely submit to my process and he truly did. But he also has a very sharp mind and always questions if something didn’t make sense to him, often providing interesting suggestions too.
How did you train a non-actor for a full-fledged feature film like this?
It was a big change for him, in every possible way. He said playing an ‘ordinary’ man reminded him of his growing-up years and his days of struggle. He drew a lot from his life before he moved to Mumbai and into the world of comedy on television. We come from very different worlds, but we had a good rapport with each other. We understood and respected each other and that really helped in our working relationship. His warmth and authenticity with which he approached the character were just right. I didn’t change a line to accommodate his public persona. Instead, he stepped into the shoes of the character, as it should be.
What have been the biggest takeaways from the project?
Every film one works on, leaves an indelible mark on one’s own life. There are so many stories to be told, so many different parts of the country to be explored and so much talent to be tapped that my biggest takeaway in this film was that I was able to do a little of all this.
I realized, how much of the particular and peculiar about our current moment can be revealed by simply following 4 days in the life of a food delivery person. This story of the new urban India has many subtle layers. After all, nothing exists in silos. Apart from the world of the gig economy, our normalized biases of class, caste, and gender also found their way into the story, making the invisible, a little more visible.
It appears that social commentary and issues from the public domain have constantly inspired your films. Tell us more.
I strongly believe that stories have the power to help us explore life’s complexities with their many nuances, in ways social, economic or even news reports cannot. They humanize issues, making them relatable. They help us question our prejudices and biases, they make us feel and think in ways that impact our responses. Maybe my upbringing, my background in social work, and all that I learned through my travel and work must have impacted the choices in telling the stories I want to tell.
However, I try to stay away from “educating” or imparting “messages” through my films. I feel they can at best, hold a mirror to the viewer. I am not interested in pointing fingers at anybody but keen on evoking a desire to look at our own selves more honestly and see what difference, we as individuals can make in a given situation. All three films of mine attempt that. Small changes in our behavior can have a big impact. My cast and crew already tell me that they ‘notice’ food delivery riders so much more now. They look at them in the eye with more respect and kindness and do make an effort to give them a 5-star rating, now that they know the value of it for the riders. I feel that if the viewer can do even this, I will consider it mission accomplished! The purpose is to make ‘ordinary’ lives matter.
TIFF is not uncharted territory for you now anymore. What are your expectations this year?
True! I 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, the last one being Manto in 2018. While the story of the film is set in India, I hope the universality of the theme of the film 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 like TIFF also impacts the buzz it creates within the country. As a filmmaker, you want to tell your story your way and reach out to as many people as you can. So I am really excited that the Zwigato journey is starting at TIFF. Already the response I am getting from a discerning audience that saw the first screening, meant exclusively for the press and industry, was overwhelmingly positive.
What are you working on next?
I have slowly begun working on a new project. But it is in its very early research stage. I will dive into it only after baby Zwigato is fully delivered to the audience! So until the release of the film, nothing else for me.
Lead Image: Kapil Sharma/ Instagram