Man vs Machine: Delivery driver fights algorithm in Bollywood film

  • “Zwigato” shows struggles of gig worker on food-delivery app
  • India has about 8 million workers, many on low wages
  • Film could help change our views of future of work

By Rina Chandran

Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A worker loses his job during the pandemic, and signs up to become a driver for a food-delivery app: this was the reality for millions in the past two years, and is also the story of a new Bollywood film that examines the gig economy in India.

“Zwigato” – an apparent portmanteau of the two major food-delivery apps in India – tells the story of Manas in the east Indian city of Bhubaneswar, who loses his job as a factory-floor manager so starts working for a food-delivery app.

As he zips around the city on his motorcycle picking up and dropping off orders, Manas – played by popular comedian Kapil Sharma – discovers the algorithm is both his opaque and all-controlling boss, and struggles with his quotas and ratings.

“I was drawn to the human aspects of this mash-up of high technology and the life of the cog-in-the-wheel workers,” said director Nandita Das, who alighted on the idea when gig workers became a ubiquitous if invisible presence in the pandemic.

“With the rise of the gig economy, the struggle between man and machine that Chaplin depicted in ‘Modern Times’ has now shifted to one between man and algorithm,” she added.

India is one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for the so-called gig economy, with nearly 8 million workers in 2020-21, and forecast to expand to 24 million workers by 2029-30, according to the government thinktank NitiAayog.

But many struggle with poor working conditions, and thousands of gig workers in India have gone on strike in recent months, joining a wave of similar actions worldwide, as platform workers were squeezed by higher fuel prices and lower earnings.

A big-screen Bollywood take on their story could help shift consumer perceptions, said Rikta Krishnaswamy, a national coordinator at the All India Gig Workers’ Union.

“The creative medium can be very powerful in bringing uncomfortable questions to the fore, and highlighting invisible, or complex issues,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Change will ultimately come from the workers’ movement. But customers can be allies, and a film can help show them how.”

A gig worker is also the star of a hit Tamil-language film in theatres now, “Thiruchitrambalam’, a romantic comedy. Other movies to shine a light on the industry include Ken Loach’s 2019 film “Sorry We Missed You” and the documentary “The Gig Is Up”.

A still image from the Bollywood film “Zwigato” starring Kapil Sharma, that tells the story of a food-delivery app driver’s struggle in the eastern city of Bhubaneswar, India. Applause Entertainment/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation


India is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, yet the pace of growth is not enough to accommodate some 12 million people joining the labour force each year, and the country grapples with high unemployment, particularly in urban areas.

The gig economy – where workers pick up jobs in a flexible manner from app-based platforms – boomed during COVID-19 lockdowns, as people needed goods and food delivered to their homes, and as thousands of newly jobless looked for work.

In “Zwigato” – which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this week – Manas realises the need for better workers’ rights in his precarious job of long hours and low pay.

“Before starting on the film, I understood the world of incentives and algorithms as little as my protagonist did,” said Das, who has starred in dozens of Indian-language films, and co-wrote the screenplay with publisher Samir Patil.

The film could also enable gig workers “to see themselves differently, and use new insights about their worker identity to exercise their agency and rights,” said Anita Gurumurthy, executive director of IT for Change, an advocacy group.

“The role of technology is often seen through solutionistic modes and as marvels that make for better lives. The film could potentially unpack this assumption and create a new narrative.”

The film also reflects on class and caste – ever divisive in India – with delivery workers barred from the elevators of some fancy apartment buildings, or customers refusing deliveries or taxi rides from workers of another religion.

Platforms generally classify workers as independent contractors, and half of online workers earned less than $2 an hour, with workers in developing countries earning 60% less than those in developed countries, according to the United Nations.

Yet the industry bills itself as the “future of work,” said Krishnaswamy.

“We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the industry exists because of the technology, because of an algorithm. The industry exists because of deregulation policies and dilution of workers’ rights,” she said.

“Cinema can play a role in disabusing us of that notion. And showing how horrible the algorithm is, is a good first step.”

Das said she was not interested in a “blame game”, but is keen on seeing what consumers – who want things “quicker, cheaper and with the least effort”, but don’t think about those providing these services – can do differently.

“For that we first need to make the lives of the riders visible to invoke any sense of empathy,” she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation)