IN his 72-minute documentary Machines, Rahul Jain, 26, captures an intimate portrait of labourers, who work 12-hour shifts for the daily wage of Rs 240 at a textile factory in Gujarat. The US-based Jain, whose maternal grandfather once owned such a factory, offers an insight into the gruelling and hazardous working conditions of the migrant workers. Machines, which makes its Indian premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival today, was first screened at Sundance Film Festival 2017 and bagged the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award there.
Excerpts from an interview:
Why did you choose the subject of unorganised labour for your debut?
While growing up in an upper-class surrounding, I was being served food and driven around by people who were making less in a month than what my background enabled me to consume in one sitting. That might have given me some kind of a guilty complex. While roaming around in my maternal grandfather’s now-defunct textile dyeing mill, I was fascinated by the magnitude of the machines. In 2013, when I was a film student, the Rana Plaza incident, which caused the death of around 1,000 textile workers in Bangladesh, initiated a chain reaction. That led me to believe perhaps I should make a film about the kind of working conditions that the unregulated sector still imposes on our country’s overly populated workforce, which is easy to manipulate, as you can see in the film, due to rather simple dynamics of supply and demand. In this case, the product is the labour, or the time of life of a human.
How did you get access to the factory where the documentary is shot?
The idea of this documentary was formed on the editing table after the shooting and not on a word processor before it was shot. One of the reasons I was able to acquire access inside the factory was because of my honesty with the owners. From their perspective, they were doing nothing wrong, and nothing illegal. For them to be persecuted, the whole area’s industry would have to be severely scrutinised, something which our Gujarati-dominant ruling structures would never allow. There are regulating guidelines but what I realised was that most rules are expendable in our culture. At least, when the language of money, business, and job creation is concerned.
What was your process for making this documentary?
When you expect intimacy, you must be willing to give it in return. With the labourers, to achieve their candid honesty was tougher than I thought it would be. When I first entered the factory with my cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, we took still images for a month. This process familiarised us with the environment. I was also communicating with prospective subjects or informants, coming clean about my class guilt and trying to understand how can someone work in these situations for such long hours on a pay of Rs 240 per day.
The opening shot of the film is nearly four-minutes long.
The opening shot was that of fire, the progenitor of all life, and it was never planned to be like this. What took me back to these factories was my fascination with Olympic-sized machines and the way they completely overtook and manipulated the environment, churning out, at the end of the assembly line, beautiful piles of fabric. I used to get lost in the factory, due to my short height, and the deep aisles of machines lined against each other. I wanted to create the feeling of being lost, dissociated and disoriented like I felt as a child.
Tell us a bit about your background and what drew you study cinema?
I grew up with a lot of books around me. Though I had said that I intended to be an engineer, I couldn’t save my life with mathematical calculations. Around the same time, I had a burgeoning awareness of narrative form and appreciation of cinematic aesthetics. It’s just that I had never met an artist of any sort till I was 20. My whole life, I was rather worried about certain causes that pertain to a broad spectrum of ‘human rights’. Going to an art school encouraged the fusion of aesthetics and politics.
You have handled the direction, screenplay, camera and sound, apart from co-producing it. How did you manage to multitask?
I was working on a project nobody close to me believed in initially. Thus, I had the pleasure of collaborating with my closest friend and we were able to establish a telepathic connection. Which allowed us to work non-stop for months in the similarly depraved conditions as that of our subjects. This film wouldn’t have been possible with a big crew. It needed a tactile intimacy that the presence of more technicians might have disturbed or contaminated our intentions of capturing images that established a sense of fidelity.
You have used the sound of machines very well. How did you capture it?
I realised: ‘If seeing is believing, then hearing is feeling’. We captured many sounds all around the factory. Susmit Bob Nath (sound designer) understood what the film needed in its intricate demand of clearly articulated sonic fidelity. No sound recorders ever capture exactly what we hear. To be faithful to what we hear, one needs to construct the sound scape bit by bit.