Rahul Jain’s debut Machines is a compelling, deceptively simple cinematic essay on the dehumanising effects of labour, set in a cloth factory in Gujarat. Having won awards and acclaim at film festivals from Zurich and Thessaloniki to Sundance and Mumbai, the documentary is screening at the Dharamshala International Film Festival this weekend. We caught up with the 26-year-old debut filmmaker at his family home in Delhi just after Diwali, to talk about privilege and inequality, shielding ourselves from our environment, capitalism and the creative process.
You grew up in Delhi.
Yes, till the age of 15. In Pitampura. By the time I left India, we were in GK II. And then while I was gone, my family moved to Geetanjali Enclave. And then a few years ago, we moved here [to the South Extension house].
Do you have plans of moving back here?
I have actually moved back. Though I’m travelling a lot, and it has been difficult to be here and meditate for my next film. I went out today for a few hours, and it was very depressing. But I guess that’s what I’m looking for. [laughs]
Yes, I read that your new project is about environmental pollution. Is this also a fieldwork trip – given that Diwali now inaugurates the pollution season in Delhi?
It is, kind of. But very privileged and protected. I think the suffusion of politics and art is a relatively recent thing, maybe 100-150 years. Since the Renaissance artists have had this problem of how to represent anything an invisible force: the greatest of those would be God. To look at a poison does not suggest what that poison can do.
So why does the visual representation matter then?
This is something I struggle with. But this is where the human comes in. It is life that interprets matter around it. Otherwise matter is just matter. If I can somehow manage to excavate and provoke certain kinds of reactions from a wide intersection of the population of the city… I don’t experience the city the way an average person here would, by needing to walk around. When I went to school in a non-AC school bus, maybe I did. But now, with air conditioning, for example, the more you avoid the genie outside, the more the genie outside keeps growing. It’s a Catch-22, something that I’m really confused and scared about — as much as one can be with a level of comfort that allows you to ignore your surroundings.
It’s more and more possible to shield yourself from the environment. Once you begin, there seems no end.
Yes, the thickness of the barriers between you and the world keep growing, the more you avoid the world outside. I don’t really know how to communicate that fear to people for whom that fear is not up to their necks at the moment. I don’t know if this blindness is a socio-economic problem. This is going to affect all of us. Maybe the richest will dig into mountains and hide themselves inside, but that won’t really be life, would it?
But even people not in that position seem not to see what it is doing to them, and worse — what they’re doing to it. In my very middle-middle class Delhi neighbourhood, families hoarded fireworks and lit them after midnight. That — not relief — was the response to the Supreme Court ban on firework sales. It seems like everyone wants to assume the role of victim.
Every single book that I’ve read about climate change or global warming, the first chapter talks about denial. Of course there’s pollution outside, but the real pollution is inside our heads, which is causing us to not perceive the magnitude of the behemoth we are facing, we are causing. Carbon is a solid but we have managed to transmute it into a gas.
The other thing is slow violence. As a five-year-old, there was something fascinating about explicit, extreme contrasts — if the punch doesn’t have the dishoom-dishoom sound, we might experience it less. It’s easy to kill creatures in a video game. Like that virtual violence, the pollutants we are generating remain virtual or fictional — till they hit us. Maybe an animal feels more when they see a chrysanthemum growing in January instead of April. How do you generate that foreboding, the terror of what that means? To depict that is a big representational challenge.
What you just said about denial and our comforts making us deny our role reminded me of one of the strongest scenes in Machines: where the factory owner says he keeps the labourers’ salaries low because they would spend the extra money on bidis or alcohol. That is class blindness and denial. The other thing I remember is that in an interview you gave, you mentioned that you wanted to capture the stench of ammonia in the factory — which takes us back to depicting the invisible.
I’m just a very olfactory person. I am very moved by smell. I even choose my partners by it. I am wary of it, but I use it in my art as well. But films are nonetheless a two-dimensional medium. You get sound and image, you have make do with that, but I try to generate a kind of synaesthesia.
I believe that you first visited the factory in Machines when you were a small child. What stayed with you from then?
Sense perceptions. A child doesn’t have the language to articulate the world, they can only feel. I was three feet tall and there were all these sweaty people, very big. And the machines were very big. It was one of my foundational experiences to have seen that, even though I was only a tertiary participant. As a child, I was a ghost there. My whole life it was brewing, I think. Then three things happened. First I was given a warning that I would get kicked out [of film school] if I didn’t make something. But I didn’t identify or relate with anything in my immediate environment.
Where was that?
In Valencia, which is 40 miles from Los Angeles. Very white and very dull. Then I was googling for inspiration and googled ’25 Greatest Photographers Ever’ and came across Sebastian Salgado’s book called Workers. I was hypnotised. It literally took me back to my exaggerated perspective, that of a child. Also around the same time in 2013, the Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh happened, where a garment factory collapsed and over a thousand people passed away. This was also one of the catalysts that brought this into the zeitgeist.
I could have made this film in a bread factory or a Pepsi factory. I mean, the whole world is built on slavery of some kind or another. But the earliest rhetorics of working class conditions and anthropology of workers was articulated for some reason in textile mills.
Yes, true. So did you work out why the cloth matters? I mean, there is an obvious visual contrast between these reams of fabric and the often meagrely-clothed men working to create them…
Yes. Which some of the girls in my school in California found really hot. Though I wasn’t at all eroticising them in that way.
How old were you when you started shooting?
Twenty-two. It took me three years to finish the film. I’m 26 now. That time I had, when I was studying other things, was helpful. I didn’t have a producer for the longest time. It wasn’t very expensive at first: I had my own equipment, my best friend from film school, Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, agreed to be my cinematographer, and we have a synergy. I’m somebody who worries a lot, but he didn’t give a f**k about important deadlines. I learnt patience from him. It’s the most basic fact of meditation: to calm down and not be tremored by 20 different ideas. When we lose our anally-retentive postmodern sense of control, that’s when we can let go. I do believe that creativity needs a kind of looseness — your mind needs to free itself of the tautness of deadlines, and be relaxed enough to make wild juxtapositions in your head.
You don’t ever appear in the film.
In films, just like in life, what you don’t see is as important as what you see. Of course the film is brought to the audience from my perspective. But my presence would be a barrier, or filter. It would take away the urgency of the words spoken. I wanted viewers to feel they were being directly addressed.
There is one scene towards the end, where the crowd of labourers outside ask you what you’ve come to do, whether you actually want to help, or will you also just go away like politicians do. What did you say?
I didn’t really have any answers. But I told the workers what I was doing.
And what was the response?
They thanked me. Some of them said, that’s really kind of you, that you’re trying to understand what we’re going through. Some of the others were just happy that someone had pointed a camera at them for the first time in their lives. These people come from a place of thinking nobody cares about them. So for anybody to be curious about their situation, about their being, is almost a phenomenon. But we’re humans and we respond to empathy. Also I communicated with them the kind of privilege I come from, and the fact that I’ve never earned a single penny in my life, and that I’m studying.
That’s a difficult thing to do.
Absolutely. You really have to be vulnerable. Sometimes a worker would ask me, yeh camera kitne ka hai, and I could not bring myself name a figure that would equal 20 years of his salary in that factory. So I would just say, it’s very expensive.
That is also the basic question that drove me to make this film: not knowing why there is this inequality. In many places the illusion of equality is much more present. Here in India it stares back at you.
So are you back in India for good?
Well, at least as long as I’m working on my next project, the documentary on pollution. It’s depressingly inside my head still. I need to put pen to paper.
Did you write a script for Machines?
[Shakes his head to indicate no].
But you want to write a script for this film?
No, I just want to see my thought process tangibilised [sic]. Writing things down helps. I mean my father still takes notes, and he’s one of the most successful men I know. And he went to school till Class Eight.
You started out going to engineering school in the US. How long did you last?
But the science that you studied, seems to survive in your concerns, and in your metaphors.
I came to art very late. Until the age of 20, I had never met an artist. But I had met scientists. And businessmen and lawyers and doctors.
You’re just back from the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Any thoughts on current cinema in India? Do you watch Indian films?
I’m going to watch a Bollywood film with my family tonight, and I know that every part of my brain will be screaming ‘I want to get out of here’. We are a film-watching country, but it can’t be about the numbers. It’s about what sorts of film we’re watching; what films it is assumed we want to see. The formula [of producing commercial cinema] works on the same principle as Amazon or Netflix, which is to say that the machine is supposed to be able to predict what you would like. But it is a machine making that decision, and a machine can only create based on what has been made before. How then will anything new ever get created?