Although we’re often referred to as living in a “post-Covid world”, the devastating echoes of the pandemic continue to reverberate, particularly among the working class in countries around the world. The impact of the pandemic on India’s middle class is central to two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—Tora’s Husband, directed by Rima Das, and Zwigato, directed by Nandita Das.
Tora’s Husband is Rima Das’ third film at TIFF and the first to compete in the festival’s Platform competition (a first for any Indian film). Curated by three TIFF programmers, the Platform lineup of 10 films spotlights “distinct directorial voices that are emerging around the globe”. Das’ approach to filmmaking is unique in how loose and unstructured it is. Calling to mind Chloe Zhao, Das typically employs mostly non-actors in her films and allows real-life circumstances to shape the narrative of her films.
“The film was supposed to be a family drama but the story started evolving due to personal loss and the pandemic,” says Das over email. “Every time we began a new schedule after a lockdown, our mental state was changing and it was difficult to maintain consistency. So there was a lot of back and forth with the writing, shooting and editing, sometimes happening almost simultaneously.”
Shot over two years, Tora’s Husband focuses on Jaan, the owner of a modest restaurant and bakery in a small town in Assam. A father of two, Jaan is struggling to keep his business afloat as the pandemic shows no sign of letting up. There are salaries to pay, customers to keep happy, employees to keep safe and covid-free. One of the most realistic depictions of the hardships of small business owners that we’re likely to see coming out of the pandemic, the film takes its time to reveal the litany of problems Jaan is up against—dwindling footfalls and orders; wastage of excess baked goods that didn’t sell; customer complaints that the food no longer tastes the same; chefs that are either quitting, falling sick or getting drunk; not enough revenue coming in to continue paying full salaries, and on and on.
Abhijit Das, who plays Jaan, does a stellar job of capturing both the can-do attitude of an entrepreneur and the weariness of an employer, particularly one determined to do right by his staff, being slowly pushed to his limit. His personal life has its share of problems too: the family dog goes missing, their domestic help gets covid, and his wife is struggling to manage the house and two kids on her own. Caught up in his own worries, he fails to provide any support—emotional or otherwise—to his wife. Where the film falters is introducing too many issues for Jaan to grapple with. There’s a subplot with his mother, who seems to have left his home on bad terms; a side hustle in construction that’s also resulting in financial losses; and a battle with alcoholism. That said, there’s a clear-eyed and naturalistic approach to revealing not just his struggles but the collateral impact they have on everyone around him.
“This is a very important time in history and in the worst of times the more sensitive sections of the society are the worst affected,” says Das. “Tora's Husband is the story of the small businessman amidst the uncertain times. But it also about his family, employees and others dependent on him for their livelihood. When a business fails, the spirit of doing something innovative is also crushed. The film aims to show the struggles of people who look fine on the outside, but are broke and broken.”
Nandita Das’s Zwigato has similar intentions. The pandemic serves as an entry point to her story, which focuses on Manas, a factory manager in Bhubaneshwar who loses his job amid pandemic layoffs. Forced to take on a job as a rider for a food delivery app called Zwigato (a portmanteau of Swiggy and Zomato), Manas—played by comedian Kapil Sharma, whom Das says she cast for his “everyman” appeal—is a seething ball of frustration and anger. He’s new on the job but already losing patience with the faceless corporation that communicates with its workers only through confusing techspeak and cares more about star ratings, incentives and delivery times than its employees’ well-being.
“It’s a story about new India, about new urban India,” said Nandita Das at the audience Q&A following the film’s premiere at TIFF. The idea came to her when the pandemic had just started, when “there was a lot of anxiety around unemployment”.
The film is meant to be a study of India’s informal gig economy and perfectly captures the daily absurdities of life as a contract employee with no rights or benefits. It also sharply underscores the infuriating opacity of these companies, where there’s no HR department to speak of or any avenue of recourse for complaints (as even users of these apps can attest to). Nandita Das and her co-screenwriter Samir Patel consciously set the film in Bhubaneshwar, where, like in other Tier 2 cities, there is a strong yearning among the middle class for modernity and upward mobility. When asked by an audience member ‘why Bhubaneshwar?’ she responded, “Why not Bhubaneshwar? Most films are set in Delhi, Bombay, Chennai, Calcutta. India is very diverse with many different places and cultures but we never get to see them.”
In a parallel story, Manas’s wife, Pratima, played by Shahana Goswami, decides to get a job for the first time. It’s under the guise of helping make ends meet once he gets laid off from his factory job but it’s evident that Pratima yearns to be independent, to be out in the world as something more than a wife and mother. This desire causes some friction in her relationship with her husband, who views it as another repercussion of the new job he despises.
While the film works well as a slice of life portrayal of a gig economy worker, it failed to speak more pointedly about one of the most serious problems facing India at the moment—rising unemployment. In December 2021, India’s joblessness rate was up to nearly 8%, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an independent think tank. This exceeds the unemployment rate of most emerging economies and is “way higher than anything seen in India, at least over the last three decades,” according to Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank. It’s a crisis that will have a lasting impact on India, particularly its youth, and for a film that otherwise made some subtle political statements, a missed opportunity.