In Rahul Jain’s documentary Machines, human beings are often indistinguishable from the groaning pieces of metal that they operate over lengthy and stultifying shifts, day in and day out.
There is the moment when the textile factory worker puts his hand right into a machine to extract fabric and seems to disappear into it. As bales of cloth tumble off the assembly line, they eclipse the scrawny workers. The grease from the machines mingles with human sweat as the men work 12-hour shifts without bonus or holidays under a thuggish supervisor, who declares that “I am the union”.
Jain’s debut feature has been shot over six months over a three-year period. Machines will be screened in the Indian competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18). “The utter dehumanisation of labourers in our country’s unregulated working sector is one of the primary perspectives of the film,” Jain said. “They do indeed become machines in the labour they make, but what hurts most to them is that they are not paid properly. In art and films, what is not said is just as important as what is said.”
The observational documentary is designed as a mostly sensory experience interspersed with short interviews with the workers. Jain and cinematographer Rodrigo Villanueva rarely leave the massive factory, whose overwhelming greyness is relieved by splashes of colour created by industrial dyes and the finished textiles that roll off the machines. The deafening noise works as a background score, and the silent movement of the bodies across the factory floor create their own rhythms, sometimes hypnotic and at other times soporific.
Is it night or day? It is hard to tell. In one sequence, a worker who barely looks 18 fights to stay awake besides a conveyor belt, effectively conveying the banality of industrial labour.
The film aims to be a timeless visual essay on labour that creates a universal experience from a specific instance. There is no voiceover, little explanatory text and no references to the larger labour situation in the rest of India. Details of the factory’s location – in Sachin in Surat, Gujarat – and the intended markets for its prolific produce are scant.
None of the workers is identified by name, which makes their individual stories hard to separate from one another. They are united by their impoverishment, which has pushed them out of their homes in faraway states to make a living in Gujarat, and their collective ability to be deployed as workhorses.
“Names are forgettable, and also identifiable,” explained Jain, who grew up in Delhi and studied filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts. “I feel it is the things that people say that stick in our hearts and minds at the end of the day.”
Jain’s debut film has been compared to the German documentary Our Daily Bread, about the industrial production of food, and it may also remind some viewers of Faricha Pacha’s brilliant My Name is Salt, a feature-length documentary about the hard work that goes into salt production in Kutch. Jain cites among Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age, the acclaimed photography book by Sebastiao Salgado, as one of his key influences.
The 72-minute film has been shaped out of 600 hours of footage. Although Jain assiduously strives to delink the film from current economic policies in Gujarat or the rest of India, Machines becomes a meditation on the human face of the Make in India campaign – one that is exhausted and sullen.
Audiences around the world might be startled at the pre-Industrial Revolution working conditions that prevail in the textile factory, while Indian viewers will probably be served a reminder that labour reforms have not reached many corners of the country.
“The film took three years to make, and nothing has changed there since,” Jain said. “I think many of the audiences will be in for a shock, but many might be bored and think this is so casual. But art for me is about what is normalised in our everyday lives but still feels odd or unreal. It is the artist’s job to be able to re-frame and create a new perspective of seeing the world. I tried hard to do this and hope it works.”