8 July 2015

Picture This: Days and Nights in the City

My Picture This column in BL Ink this month:

Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s ambitiously wordless debut feature, Labour of Love, displays a striking grasp of sound and image

A still from Labour of Love, which won the National Awards for Best First Film and Best Audiography
At first you see nothing. The screen is dark, and all you have is the voice of a TV newsreader announcing in Bangla that “in the last week, approximately 1,200 people have lost their jobs in West Bengal. In a state of fear, panic and rage, people are taking to the streets to rally and protest”. The broadcast is followed by the titling, with the camera travelling slowly down a dirty yellow wall to the rising notes of the shehnai. When the titling ends, the music does too, and it is in the hush of early morning that we see a young woman in a printed yellow sari, walking purposefully away from us. The only sound is that of little children singing, perhaps from a nearby school. The camera follows the woman as she moves briskly through a narrow lane, allowing us to look at her red half-sleeved blouse, her batik tote bag, a thick plait hanging down her back, before she boards a tram. We see her change to a bus, and finally arrive at her destination, almost running up the stairs as a bell goes off to declare the working day open.
Meanwhile, in a room somewhere, a young man drinks his morning cup of tea. He emerges from his bath with a few washed clothes, and we see a cotton sari and a maroon petticoat. A little while later, when he heads out on a bicycle to buy groceries, we hear the children singing again.
Of such little clues is Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut film made, weaving the most undramatic actions into an intriguingly wordless tapestry of everyday life. The Bangla title, Asha Jaoar Maajhe, would translate literally to ‘between coming and going’, and it becomes clear that the woman and man we see departing and arriving are a couple. One works in a bag factory during the day, the other in a printing press at night.
In both workplaces, the cinematography (by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty) and sound design (by Anish John) come together to produce a tangible sense of the repetition, even boredom of labour. The woman tallies boxes full of bags against a list. She has a solitary lunch from her tiffin box, and returns to the desk with not much to do except daydream until the bell announces end of the day. The man watches over the rumble and clatter of the press as it spews out a steady stream of newspapers. He, too, has a solitary dinner. Sengupta alternates between the lonely silences of the home and the mechanical noises outside. But noise can be political, and quiet isn’t always melancholy. After the night-long rattle of machinery, the pre-dawn street is deliciously still, and the tinkling bells from a passing herd of goats positively bucolic — though they’re likely heading to the butcher’s.
Released in some Indian cities last week, Labour of Love comes with the recommendation of Best Debut Director prize at Venice Days, held alongside the Venice International Film Festival and modelled on the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. It also won National Awards for Best First Film and Best Audiography.
Sengupta certainly has a gift for visual and aural detail, and his remarkable refusal of both plot and dialogue focuses our attention successfully on each sound, each image he places before us. A fish still breathing heavily as it awaits death by boti (a cutting instrument used by Bengali fishmonger and traditional housewife alike), coins slipped into an earthen piggy bank, a perfect crescent of moon in the night sky — the last, with rueful irony, accompanied by Geeta Dutt singing Nishi raat banka chaand akashe, when the only sign of the beloved is his crushed kurta.
Some sequences seem metaphorical: are our protagonists like the goats, going peacefully to slaughter? Or are they like the water in the pan, which must sizzle and disappear before the oil is poured in: one must vanish before the other appears. For each, the house is haunted by the other, and the film shows this playfully. The man, looking into the mirror, suddenly sees the woman’s face behind her stick-on bindi; the woman, entering the bedroom at night, is alarmed by the man’s trousers hanging from the bed rail.
Sengupta has mentioned being influenced by Satyajit Ray, and one visual of a tramcar cable certainly brings to mind Ray’s Mahanagar (1963), which famously opened with a staccato titling sequence with shots of just such a cable, and ended with the husband and wife melting into the big city, buoyed by the belief that they could both get jobs. By cutting his shots of the cable to the sound of a workers’ rally against job cutbacks, Sengupta marks the distance we have travelled from that optimistic moment.
But the economic backdrop is also the film’s weakest link: surely India, and particularly West Bengal were relatively insulated from the effects of the recent global recession? A revealing subtitling error translates the newsreader’s moddhobitto — middle income — as ‘working class’. The film can also seem contrived in its deliberate old-world feel, and in having both protagonists refrain from calling each other, even refusing to pick up the mobile phone when the other calls from work.. There is a similarity here to The Lunchbox (2013) where, too, the premise of separate spheres for the protagonists required the artificial absence of phone contact.
The tribute to youthful coupledom recalls more traditional tales, like O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. But there is no neat resolution, tragic or comic, to Asha Jaoar Majhe. What it achieves with quiet beauty is the feeling of nights and days, stacked up in a ceaseless queue — all that time spent waiting for the one moment when the solitariness of routine might be ruptured.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, Sat, 3 July, 2015.

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