Saturday, July 28, 2018

224. Indian director Rahul Jain’s debut, long-documentary film “Machines” (2016): Hard-hitting and real perspective of modern India

India produces some of the world’s most attractive textiles that contribute to making lives in India and elsewhere colourful and comfortable-- whether it be the clothes one wears or the cloth-based furnishings in one’s dwellings. Few realize the oppressive conditions in which textile printing workers in India toil to make the lives of billions of diverse people across the world happy and content. Machines and human beings together contribute to those lovely printed textiles. The contribution of human beings in the process is rarely in the limelight. Toiling within dingy factories, these human beings gradually become dehumanized and mechanical in their actions in their sheer desperation to earn a regular income to keep themselves afloat above the abject line of hunger and poverty. They become machines not out of choice but more from a lack of choice.

Film director Rahul Jain’s honest perspective is not focussed on the machines that manufacture and print the textiles but more on the faceless tens of thousands of workers, exploited and dehumanized to work like machines for extended work hours, deprived of basic rights of hygiene, medical safety, statutory limitations of working hours and legal age and, of course, fair compensation for their time and toil. The film Machines underscores the no-win situation of migrant workers within India caught between poverty and survival, in the clutches of heartless contractors and factory owners, who spin profits for themselves sitting in contrasting distant cosy comfort.

Cinematography ( Rodrigo Villanueva) picked up two
important international awards

Machines has won several accolades worldwide.  Apart from winning the Golden Eye award at the Zurich Film Festival in 2017 for the Best International Documentary Film, it picked up the cinematography award at the Sundance film festival, the Silver Gateway award at the Mumbai film festival, the best cinematography award of the International Documentary Association and three awards/prizes at the Thessaloniki documentary festival.   What is it that makes Machines tick?

Diegetic sound recorded and mixed by the Indo-German crew
is laudable

Machines could have been made in diverse ways.  Mr Jain could have opted to make a film contrasting machines and human beings with music matching the visuals on the lines of the Dutch maestro Bert Haanstra’s 11-minute Oscar-winning wordless sublime film Glass (1958) on the Dutch glass factories. Jain’s film consciously does not use music—his attempt was not to capture the beauty, but the sweat and grime of the workers much in contrast with the workers in Europe. Machines could have been made without words to mirror the French director Louis Malle’s Humain, Trop Humain (Human, all too human) (1974), which is roughly the same length as Machines. That French film looked at the Citroen automobile factories in France and compared the human workers with the machines on the assembly line without words spoken except for brief pitches of the sales staff selling the cars.  There are commonalities between Jain’s and Malle’s film: same length, human workers who appear and work like machines, and no music. The big difference in Machines compared to the two European filmmakers is that the punch of the Indian film comes from the honest spoken lines of the workers captured by the camera replacing the silence of the European works. Malle probably thought that he conveyed a lot by choosing as the title of his film to be same as Nietzche’s last book which appeared to revise all his earlier written works. But little did Malle realize that all filmgoers need not be as well read as he was to make the bigger connection beyond what was obvious within the film’s visuals and sounds of the factory.

Spoken words matter in the film

Words when spoken in Machines sock you on the jaw. The workers have fled their villages because incomes from crops are undependable compared to grimy, sleep-deprived, and low-paid work that in sharp contrast can be depended on as steady income.   It is steady as long as you don’t upset the apple cart by protesting the raw deal meted out by the contractors and the factory owners.
The few spoken words are stronger than the visuals. The workers state they have never seen the factory’s owners—but the owners watch them on closed circuit TV in comfortable offices.  The workers can’t afford to buy cigarettes and instead ingest the cheaper semi-dry mix of raw tobacco and slaked lime locally called khaini while the factory owner ironically justifies the low wages as being more than double of what it was 10 years before, especially when workers were comparatively more committed to their work than today, casting a blind eye to the rising costs of living. (Khaini is proven to be injurious to health as much as it is to work with chemicals and dyes without adequate physical protection.) Equally disturbing is the logic of a teenage boy (it is illegal for children to work in factories in India) who claims that working at his age would develop him into a superior and sharper worker when he grows up compared to others who didn’t have his experience.  Or of another boy who reaches the gates of the factory each day and wishes soon after entering it that he could run out of the factory from another gate but chooses not to. More disturbing are the statements of a worker that any potential unionist seeking better compensation and hygienic conditions would be knocked off, while fearfully looking over his shoulder if someone heard him make that statement.

A factory worker reminiscent of a
Thomas Hardy novel

The critical decision that goes in the favour of Machines is that the spoken words are not preceded by questions.  Questions don’t matter.  Those have to be imagined.  When the workers do ask inconvenient questions of the filmmakers, the answers too are not heard.  The film as the finished product is the answer.  The brief silence before the end credits is loud and punchy.

After hard labour, a brief nap in the factory

The crucial bit beyond making of the film was revealed by the young talented director—the film having won all the global awards is yet to be widely seen within India because it is awaiting a Censor Certificate from the Government.  Few can deal with truth, fewer with injustice. Economic growth for those who matter is the mantra of the day. If the film is indeed seen widely, the question asked by the workers at the end of the film would be answered. Nietzsche could be smiling in his grave.

P.S. Director Rahul Jain, who grew up near a family owned small textile mill in India  and studied in the US will soon be teaching at a prominent US University and hopefully continue to make hard hitting films. Terrence Malick used to teach at MIT. Both wear similar hats.

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