In Labour of Love, the characters are anonymous, and the protagonist is the city. The actors are a prop that makes the city move, breathe and function round the clock," writes Bishweshwar.
Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Asha Jaoar Majhe or Labour of love begins with a dark screen. A news anchor in a stern voice reads from a teleprompter. It is difficult to establish whether it is playing on the TV or radio. We will soon realise as we traverse through the film that establishing the medium is not even a requirement here. The tone is alarming and sombre. The background to the plot is in these lines.
‘In the last week there have been job losses of around 1200 in different sectors in West Bengal. Due to this there has been panic and rage in these offices. Yesterday in Durgapur aggrieved workers protested in front of the General Manager and ransacked the office. They held the manager hostage demanding they be reinstated in their jobs. Local police had to intervene when things went out of control. The news then moved to a political intervention from the government who promised a committee to be formed to look into the matters.’
In Labour of Love, the characters are anonymous, and the protagonist is the city. The actors are a prop that makes the city move, breathe and function round the clock. As the opening sequence of the voiceover from the unknown source is over, a dark screen resumes. The film slowly opens with a lady going down the stairs. The camera is slow, the light moody and the wails of Bismillah Khan's shehnai almost gives it a wedding like feeling. Just that there are no weddings here. But the slow mechanical grind of two lives rubbing each other like minutes and hands clock of a watch, but at one time of the day.
The husband is played by Ritwik Chakraborty, a fine actor, who had earlier proved his mettle in 'Shobdo' (Kaushik Ganguly). He is certainly not a newcomer on the screen. Neither is Basabdatta Chatterjee, who plays the wife, who has acted in films as well as Bengali serials before. Its however not the experience of their acting as such that makes Labour of love such a powerful film. It is the deadpan nature of their every move and action. Over 24 hours from one morning to the next, they move like zombies engrossed in their battle with economic existence in a new India. A modern India that strives to be a 5 trillion-dollar economy soon.
Maybe it’s not even the new economy here. The husband works in the printing division of a publication for the night shift. Whereas the wife works in a bag making company during the day. Maybe the bag making company is selling its goods online, and the newspaper might have an online edition. But all this is mere speculation and not the central theme of the story. The central element on which the film thrives here is the muteness which their life has been reduced to due to their working hours. When she is in, he is out. And vice versa.
Sharing a space even as a married couple in a metropolitan city has its own struggles. But the working class struggles together in construction sites and comes back home together to their non electrified shanties. The rich live in different cities when economics demand in a marriage but they can take a holiday to Europe. This is, however, the new Apur Sansar. Childless, maybe there isn't even time for that, the couple divides time and responsibility to maintain an address and a foothold in a city. In their waking hours, they are a slave to a system, and when they retire, they are still separated in a geography whose name and address are the same, but the time is separate. This game of time and space is what makes Labour of Love such a terrific film to watch.
There is not a single dialogue in the film hence you won't even find a mise en scène but the camera mesmerises with slow pulls, pans and zooms. It reminds one of the famous Taiwanese Director Tsai Ming Liang, whose films The River, What Time Is It There, and I Don't Want To Sleep Alone reflected the loneliness in Taiwanese society. Tsai of course is an auteur and his lead actor Lee Kang-Sheng an extension in most films of his, or rather a vehicle to expose this new urban phenomenon. In Aditya's Labour of Love, there isn't a Lee to convey this. It is a rather sad duet with Bismillah on the Shehnai and the couple and one old building somewhere in Calcutta with apartments with shared toilet that paints a canvas of urban loneliness and dystopia.
Every move and activity then takes precedence. Like the bath, the visit to the fish market, buying provisions, cooking, or just blank gazes. The city is raging with injustice on every front. The loudspeakers echo resentment on economic front, the tram lines, the wires, the pantagraph, making a symphony that is mechanical yet plaintive. The protagonists manage their life with slow precision. The wife dutifully cooks the food before leaving in the morning. She serves it on a plate for herself, prepares her lunchbox, not to forget saving the rest in the fridge for him to carry in the morning. It’s interesting to note that they have a fridge but no washing machine as that's still a luxury or maybe it’s the nature of their living with a shared bathroom that doesn't allow that. They have divided few chores for amity. Like him drying her saree and petticoat on the line. Buying the fish from the market. But these are day chores. The sun is out in the morning and the fish market also stays open in the daytime.
If the day and night overlaps in one space in the chawl like existence in an old Kolkata building, then the working hours in a space away is filled with routine. The bag company she works in has serious timing issues and she literally runs to make it in seconds precision. No one talks in the office. She eats her lunch from her tiffin quietly, stares blankly, walks taking stock of the bags packed in a parcel and is the last to leave the office when the final bell rings. If the rush to reach on time is a necessity, then the sluggishness to go back home is the loneliness that awaits her back as he will be at work for the night shift. Their only communication then becomes the ring to each other which functions as an alarm to wake them up from slumber to get ready to go to work.
They, of course, meet in a dreamlike sequence in a forest where their antique double bed is also a place for them to sit all dressed. They smile only in dreams when they meet in this forest with mist and tall pine trees, real life is too harsh and devoid of any happiness. It’s a struggle. Between the bag company she works for and the printing press with its mechanical sounds running sheets the film paces like a dhrupad raaga.
The film ends with the cycle of their continuing life with a fleeting moment of meeting which might not even have happened. Do they have weekends, where they go and shop and watch movies? Are the salary cheques enough for them to make ends meet? He encashes a cheque of Rs 8,000 but we wouldn’t know if it’s a salary or bonus. The cheque is just left on the table and it’s hard to guess whose salary it is. The answers to these are not as important. Aditya is not even wanting us to look for answers or a resolution. He is just holding a mirror to our fractured lives in modern times.
Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.