A Handful of Stories

Reportage on health, science and politics. And some meditations on film

Nagarkirtan: Unusual Loves and Marginal, Gig Economy Lives

This love story is also a portrait of the urban precariat–the life of a food delivery worker who earns on commission is not so different from the life of a ‘hijra’ who earns for each ‘performance’

I came to Nagarkirtan several months after my homo-unaware parents exhorted me to watch this “adbhut chamatkar” (strange marvellous) film. I call them homo-unaware because their response to the film told me they are not homophobic. They were unfamiliar with what non-heterosexual love might mean, they needed the right kind of persuasion. Can you be phobic about that which you cannot articulate? Phobia may be irrational but it is of specific things, right? That is what those trivia questions are about, isn’t it? What is the fear of spiders called? What is agoraphobia?

It is, indeed, a moving account of unusual love but Bengali film has a uniquely strong catalogue on unusual sex, love and body disaffections, thanks largely to the work and life of Rituparno Ghosh and the director of this film Kaushik Ganguly, who collaborated on projects towards the end of Ghosh’s life.  Even before his work with Ghosh, Ganguly made an unusual film about a man’s dissatisfaction with his “flat-chested” wife (Shunyo Ei Bukey). Earlier than this, Ganguly had directed perhaps the earliest lesbian love story I have seen in an Indian language film. Ushno Taar Jonye (For a Little Warmth) starred Rupa Ganguly and the director’s wife Churni Ganguly (no relation to each other) in an affecting love story.

In this sense, Nagarkirtan is familiar (though beautiful) viewing terrain for me. What struck me immediately about the film, watching it on a week when my social media timeline was filled with images of striking food delivery workers, is the portrait of the food delivery executive. Perhaps this is the mark of a strong story, that its other strands hold up as important documents on their own. The national award for best actor and headlines went to Riddhi Sen, who plays a boy who wants to undergo surgery to become a woman, and that is richly deserved. But his other half is played by Ritwick Chakraborty, arguably the finest actor working in Bengali film today and easily among the top five actors working in Indian films today. Chakraborty, in another marvellous outing, plays a food delivery worker in a bright red company T-shirt. It is a nice touch, close to the distinctive orange tees of a well-known food delivery app company.

On Twitter, I read that the workers in Chennai are paid Rs 15 per delivery assignment for upto ten km. Perhaps because my mind was full of that sickening, absurd figure, I latched onto Madhu’s (Chakraborty’s name in the film) portrayal. All day, Madhu cycles the streets of south Calcutta to deliver orders of fried rice, chowmein, chilli chicken in small white polythene packets. As the critic Baradwaj Rangan has written, Madhu too “works the streets” as his lover Pari (Riddhi Sen) does.

A still from the film, sourced via IMDb. No commercial purpose, used solely on my website

Madhu’s phone rings often, disrupting the briefest snatch of conversation or a moment’s rest at a traffic intersection. He even uses a toilet break (on the walls of the city of joy) to make an urgent phone call, that’s how little time the incessant phone calls leave him with. He lives in slums, first one and then another as a developer demolishes the first. His rent is Rs 600 a month. We see a tall, slender, apartment complex soaring in the backdrop of the soon-to-be demolished slum. This is the dream—a city of neat, clean structures swept clean of “slums”.

We see a lot of such “nice houses” from the outside, the lovely old statuesque distinctive south Calcutta architecture and more recent apartment buildings. We catch only glimpses of the insides of these nice houses, when Madhu delivers food and stops to drink a glass of water and catch the cricket score. The film adopts Madhu’s eye. In a memorable moment, he pokes his head inside to catch a glimpse of the cricket action (I felt myself heaving a sign of relief for this moment of respite from the ciy’s sweltering heat). We can hear the hum of cricket commentary in the background. Another time, he catches an interview of Manabi Bandopadhyay, the transgender college principal who has made national headlines for her appointment. (I wonder, is it the films of Ghosh and Ganguly that may have pushed stodgy government types to even consider the remarkable candidacy of Ms Bandopandhay?) This is where the interaction of “slum” Calcutta and nice Calcutta ends, in spite of 4G or 5G connectivity.

What we see much more are the insides of “cheap shady places”—Madhu’s slum rooms, the Rs 250-a day hotel he books in the mofussil town of Krishnangar, the crumbling riverside house where the ‘hijra’ community stays for a  rent of Rs 260 a month.  Ganguly commits to a resolutely non-glamorous, urban underbelly aesthetic. In one sequence, Parimal tells Madhu, “Some people romance in the backdrop of the Victoria Memorial, we have the sewage canal and the smell of faeces.”

Madhu’s phone rings often, disrupting the briefest snatch of conversation or a moment’s rest at a traffic intersection. He even uses a toilet break (on the walls of the city of joy) to make an urgent phone call, that’s how little time the incessant phone calls leave him with. He lives in slums, first one and then another as a developer demolishes the first. His rent is Rs 600 a month. We see a tall, slender, apartment complex soaring in the backdrop of the soon-to-be demolished slum.

What else can you afford when you earn Rs 15 a delivery? As Rangan writes, the film is as much about the marginalisation of the urban precariat as it is about the fragile lives of the transgender community. In Calcutta, you can see a flock of distinctive orange food delivery company T-shirts at the mouth of a major flyover that goes over the  bypass connecting the old city with the newer, planned city. They wait on the road to pick up orders from the clutch of popular restaurants nearby. I have seen them occasionally at my door when I collect a food order, I have given them five stars on the app feedback, I have occasionally served them a glass of water. I have wanted to be friendlier, but held back on the perennial anxiety that my friendliness may lead to sexual harassment. (Of course this is the sheath of worry women wear around themselves, but look up the app delivery harassment stories on social media).

But I’ve often wondered about these lives. What are the opportunities the new economy of internet connectivity offers? What sort of life can you shape from gig work? What does a post-jobs economy look like? In a small photography workshop where I had done a talk on narrative, a participant had pitched the idea of following a food delivery executive around his day. What is the life of a food delivery executive like? It was the idea that had enthused me the most, I had even thought of accompanying the photographer to write a story. But it never took shape. The answer is easy to guess. Their day is constantly on the move, constantly rushing through traffic and picking up phone calls to answer about delays. There is little time to answer questions, lesser still to be captured on camera.

The app economy may be new, but the gig economy is not. (Much like non-heterosexual love, which Nagarkirtan underlines with Chaitanya mahaprabhu’s life and songs.) Legions of workers have lived commission to commission for years. The ‘hijra’ community that Parimal is a part of, for instance, they have been a part of our urban lives for years. They perform to celebrate birth,  and at traffic intersections. There is no guarantee of income, no minimum floor, no benefits. There are other such workers too, those who may not be sexual minorities. Electricians, plumbers, street food vendors, people with uncertain incomes and lives that the gathering momentum of the mutant globalised economy may push out of the sight of our cities completely. Have apps on 4G or 5G connectivity changed the gig economy for better?  Has Silicon Valley disruption disrupted these lives for the better? I am an optimist, and I would be happy to read a more hopeful account of these lives.

There is now an All India Gig Workers’ Union with a twitter handle. My colleagues who write on labour shall, no doubt, write a detailed account of the strike and struggles of the workers. We will learn more about their lives. I hope some of them watch Ganguly’s film before they embark on this story. It offers a tenderness and detail, and a juxtaposition of change and the unchanging, that will make their work richer.

Nagarkirtan is streaming on the HoiChoi app
Director: Kaushik Ganguly
Starring: Riddhi Sen, Ritwik Chakraborty

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