28 November 2016

The Trappings of Technology

My Mirror column:

Two great films about unemployed men and machines confront us with the alienations of our time.

A white British man sits in front of a computer. Even as he strives to keep his attention focused and his eyes from glazing over, the desktop gets hunghangs . The online form he's been trying for ages to fill is now suspended in the ether — information refusing to flow either this way or that. When the 59-year-old Dan demands to know what's happened, the younger black man who's been helping him out tells him the screen is frozen. “It's frozen?” yells Dan in frustration. “Well, can you defrost it?”

A wave of laughter runs through the packed hall at Panjim's Kala Academy as the scene above unfolds as part of the International Film Festival of India's screening of Ken Loach's brilliant new film I, Daniel Blake last on Friday evening. But it is nervous laughter. As I giggle with the rest of the IFFI audience, I wonder if the edge of discomfort is created by the incongruous use of the word 'defrost'. What are we to make of it, this 20th century technological moment that is now completely embedded in our language — and yet already feels near-obsolescent when used to refer to the cool new machines of our era?

That vast empty space that lies between refrigeration technology and the internet — the old machine age and the new — was also made starkly visible in an Indian film I watched a couple of weeks ago at a much smaller film festival up in Dharamshala: Mangesh Joshi's absolutely marvellous debut feature, Lathe Joshi

Like the eponymous Daniel Blake (played by the wonderfully restrained British actor Dave Johns), Lathe Joshi is a man being robbed of a living, a person in the present being forcibly relegated to the past. If Loach's protagonist is a joiner without a job (“I'm a carpenter. Much more dangerous,” he tells a child who asks if he's a pirate), Mangesh Joshi's hapless hero is a lathe machine worker who cannot bring himself to tell his family that he no longer has a factory to go to. Chittaranjan Giri is simply superb as the grave-eyed man for whom a machine has shaped not just his life but his very identity: “Is it 'Lathe' Joshi?” asks his aged ex-employer much to Joshi's delight, when asked whether he can be visited on his sick-bed.

But even Joshi's world is divided into machines that love him back and machines that don't. Like Blake, whose confusion at the dehumanising technology of the ironically-named British 'welfare' state is as strong as his connection to his old box of “good quality hand tools”, Joshi must deal not just with machines in the domestic sphere, but with the new sort of industrial machine: one that has replaced him instead of functioning as his ally. Loach's film gives a greater degree of loving attention to the artisanal, moving between an angry, argumentative register and an immersive happy one. I, Daniel Blake, like its protagonist, is insistent on showing us how the handwritten CV, the hand-turned wooden toy, and hand-crafted electrical repairs can still give human beings perfect service and plenty of individually-tailored joy, if only we weren't being forcibly tunnelled into the airless crevices of a bureaucratic tech-spertise state.

Given the atomised, anonymised dystopia of the British present, perhaps Loach's evocation of an unblemished lost alternative is unavoidable. The Marathi film, on the other hand, must engage more complicatedly with the improvements still being brought about by the everyday incorporation of technology into our lives. The arrival of a mixer-grinder can still raise the efficiency of an Indian woman's life by several notches; the connectivity of mobile phones, computers and cars is able to produce a standard of convenience and comfort that isn't just glamorous.

But in kinship with another recent film, Ruchika Oberoi's Island City, Mangesh Joshi's film forces us to think about where we might be headed. The dying factory owner that Lathe Joshi goes to meet is quietly cognizant of his fate as a human being in the present era: “I am alive, only thanks to these machines,” he says resignedly. Finally, the grandmother's chanting machine and the internet pooja may seem funny, but they are incredible examples of how technology has inserted itself into the spaces between our supposed inner selves and our notion of the divine. Our spiritual happiness, too, is now beholden to technology.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 27th Nov 2016.

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