For his debut documentary feature, Delhi-born, U.S.-educated director Rahul Jain ignored the opinion of friends who told him that, if he wanted to see poverty, he should simply travel to the other side of town. Instead, with a small film unit, he took himself off to Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, to paint an intimate portrait of the migrant workers that gather there.
The results are surprising; while the visuals are hypnotic and frequently beautiful, the stories jar with our concepts of poverty in the modern age, as it is revealed that many of these workers are already in debt, having taken out travel loans to work 12-hour shifts and earn wages of just 7,000 rupees (approximately $100) per month.
Unusually for such a personal project, the director stays out of the frame – we never see his face or hear his voice – and it is this unobtrusive presence that slowly teases out the film’s multi-faceted story. How does he explain this? “It’s kind of corny,” says Jain, a former engineering student, “but quantum physics does state that every time you observe an object, it changes, even if it’s an inanimate object.” He laughs. “Now, I don’t understand how that happens, but I do think that if you stay there with your subject, and somehow share some experience of your time together, it starts to reveal itself as what it is.”
How did you get into filmmaking?
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Rahul Jain: I was a young engineering student, and because I kept failing at calculus, I thought I needed to do something else with my life. I was also in a military school before that, in Indiana, and I was very alienated from everybody around me. I was watching a lot of films around that time, but I’m sure I always had interest in some kind of narratology. So, over a year, I read and looked at a lot of films after dropping out of engineering, and then I went to the California Institute of the Arts to study filmmaking.
What inspired you to make a film about a textiles factory in Gujarat?
When I was young, a very young child, my maternal grandfather had a factory like this. I used to get to spend my summer there. I’m sure the desire to recreate that experience of being a child might have been the catalyst that propelled me.
How did you find the factory that you were going to focus on?
It was through some distant connections. I asked if I could visit a factory, just like that, and they found it.
Were they very receptive to you? Was there any suspicion when you first arrived?
Absolutely. There was suspicion in the beginning, but for a long time I decided not to take the camera with me to the location and just observe – to force my mind to think of ways to see this. I was with my cinematographer, Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, who is Mexican, so he was interacting by body language. He had worked in factories before too, so he had a very respectful outlook and agenda. I think all these factors combined – we were very approachable and intimate in a way. It was a challenge to break the wall, but a very endearing challenge.
It’s a very photographic. How did you work out the visual style of the film?
As soon as you enter this environment, there are many conflicting feelings, but the first primary one is of extreme wretchedness. The factory smelled like an absolute vat of ammonia, the chemical. I’m serious. It was my sincere desire, in many ways, to bring ammonia to the screen, so that people can really feel the stench while they’re watching this. Of course, that’s not possible. But there’s just this extreme sensory overwhelming nature of the way things are done there.
A lot of the scenes seem very stylised and composed. Would agree?
Absolutely. Rodrigo has a very good eye for composition. Also, we were working as a very, very tight-knit unit, deciding what we wanted, and what I wanted, to shoot. He grew up copying Disney animation on paper and learning a lot of classical art. He was very interested in chiaroscuro, the Italian art of lighting.
The workers reveal a lot to you. Did you expect them to talk to you about their lives in such detail?
Yeah, absolutely. I was not interested in actually giving any answers, so I just let them talk. Ever since I was a child, I was always curious to know about this other side [of society], which was so unacknowledged in many ways. You tell somebody you’re making a film about poverty and many people from the class background that I come from would say something like, “Why are you doing that? If you want to see poverty, go outside in your car and see it on the streets.” People think the distance between the classes is two millimeters. They think it’s close, but it’s millions of miles. I was trying to shorten this distance.
The workers all have fascinating faces…
Absolutely. The human face is such a thing of marvel, but it’s the time that we choose to give to a face that, I think, influences our feelings about that face. I was really influenced by Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian photographer, and his book in particular called Workers. Looking at pictures of such immense beauty, it makes you not want to turn the page and just transfix on one image. It made me feel that maybe beautiful images make it difficult for us to look away even from things that we don’t like or things that make us uncomfortable.
You stay inside the factory for a long time before moving outside. Was that a conscious decision?
I was definitely trying to play with elements of claustrophobia that the people in this factory feel. I also think what you’re responding to might be because of the editing as well, which is quite slow in relation to other films out there. Looking at one image for a long time definitely gives you a sense of closed space, especially when the images are static. Also, the lenses really lock in the visual language, in that way that [films by] Robert Bresson or the Dardenne brothers do.
You keep your voice out of the movie. Why was that?
That was a very systematic expulsion. Many people wanted me to talk or create the Buddha narrative, where this rich kid goes to a clothes factory and I thought that was just not right. The film was so much more than that.
Why did you call it “Machines”?
The first title that I had in my mind was called “Machines Don’t Go On Strike”. I was very enthusiastic about this, but for some reason, I felt it was saying too much – I wanted something that did not really say that much. I think “Machines” is quite an apt title also because it was the machines in the beginning that took me back to this factory. The childhood experiences that I had, my mind always thought of the machines and not the humans. When I went back again, it was the humans that I saw more. This time, they had taken the role of the machines.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a fiction idea about water stress in Delhi, in the Anthropocene epoch, and how the water stress in this most populated parts of the world will definitely quintuple in the next five to six years. I’m from Delhi, and more than half of the city – which is around 11-12m people – have to buy their water from really compromised sources at tenfold the price that someone bourgeois like me pays. It really messes me up to think about this. I think that’s a good place to start if you’re angry and confused. That’s a good place to start for a film.