Documentary channel

A new documentary brings the Maruti struggle alive through the stories of its arrested workers

Rahul Roy's latest film revisits the unionisation dispute that rocked the automobile company's plant in Manesar between 2011 and 2013.

One of the first things to be said about Rahul Roy’s new documentary The Factory is that it is two hours long. Nobody is more conscious of this fact than Roy. At a recent film screening in Delhi, Roy and the film’s editor, Reena Mohan, wondered how viewers were going to take the length. “I thought, God, what a bore, will people sit through it, but it seems to have gone down well,” Roy said.

The documentary’s running time is inextricably linked to its subject and narrative treatment. The Factory revisits one of the most contentious cases of industrial unrest in recent history: the face-off between workers and the management of the Maruti Suzuki automobile factory in Manesar in Haryana that started in 2011. Roy, who has also shot the documentary, started filming on July 18, 2013, exactly a year after the death of general manager of Human Resources, Avnish Kumar Dev, during a violent clash between workers and the management. The company alleged that Dev perished from beatings and suffocation after his floor caught fire, and 147 workers  were jailed on murder charges. The workers, who had been clashing with the management over their attempts form a union for several months, countered that Dev’s death was an excuse to frame them and demonise the union.

The affair, which is by no means over, is filled with dramatic moments. But in keeping with Roy’s longstanding interest in labour, capital and working-class lives and his quiet, observational approach, the film is a sober and rigorous account of the soul-destroying courtroom grind endured by the arrested workers on the inside and their families on the outside. (As of March, 79 workers had been granted bail, while 68 continue to be behind bars.)

“Given the nature and the scale of the issue, the fact that one is dealing with a history and the production part of it, and given the cases, there was no way I could have done justice to it all,” Roy said. “Ideally I would always want a shorter film. But the film needed a certain pace, it needed time to make various connections. Besides, how do you create a sense of the wait in real time, of people’s lives and the frustrations that build up.”

Roy began to shoot his film at a demonstration against Maruti to mark the first anniversary of the arrests in 2013 and ended the film exactly a year later in Gujarat, where the company hopes to shift the plant. “I actually started filming at a point when the movement was not at its peak,” said the 52 year-old filmmaker. “I filmed at a point when the movement was waning in terms of its public presence and the entire concentration was on the court cases.”

In between the endless waiting, the anxieties and agonies faced by the families of the incarcerated workers and the frustrations of the defence lawyers, Roy traces a short history of Maruti in India – its inception as a public-private joint venture with Suzuki holding the majority stake in 1982, its huge share of the car market until recently, and the establishment of the Manesar plant in 2007.

High targets usually result in a punishing shopfloor culture. In order to ensure that a finished car rolls off the assembly line every 50 seconds, the plant employs a mix of permanent and contract workers. In a telling sequence, a worker blandly details number of minutes allotted for tea and lunch breaks: seven for tea and 30 for lunch.

“The production process had to become a very important element,” Roy said. “That was a huge challenge, since I didn’t have access to the management. How do you create a narrative around the production process without putting people to sleep?”

The fact that the Maruti management obdurately refused to talk to Roy or give him permission to shoot inside the plant also influenced the narrative. The Factory is seen through the eyes of the workers and their supporters. There is no attempt to establish equivalence by seeking the other side of the story. Maruti’s views on the matter come through in indirect ways: through a presentation that plays out on a giant screen as dancers writhe before it in silhouette, media reports and the legal representations made by the company. Maruti appears in the film as a malevolent presence that instituted an unhealthy work culture to ensure profit at all costs, actively blocked the workers’ legitimate demands to allow them to form a union, and influenced villagers living near the plant through corporate social responsibility programmes into providing them with muscle power when the workers went on strike.

“In the larger sense, what is fairly clear is that there is almost a nexus between the state and corporations coming together,” Roy said. “For instance, why did the state appoint KPS Tulsi as the public prosecutor for what is essentially a murder trial?” The erstwhile Congress Party government in Haryana paid Tulsi Rs 5.5 crore for his appearance. He was replaced in December by a team of 85 state lawyers.

Tulsi and the rest of the prosecution team are another invisible entity in a film that sticks close with its subjects, filming the arrested workers as they arrive at or leave the court premises, interviewing their lawyers, and spending time with their families.

“Where you place the camera reveals a lot about the film and filmmaker,” Roy explained. “I very consciously decided that the camera would always be on one side. It would look at the workers’ angle, not in terms of becoming a PR job, but becoming observant to how they are dealing with the issues.” The documentary

The Factory is one of the several films funded by the Justice Project, which examines political, social and economic conflicts across the subcontinent.

Filmmakers and researchers in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have produced films as well as academic studies on such varied subjects as the Ayodha mosque dispute, the death of garment workers in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, and post-civil war compensation in Sri Lanka. The Factory and other films as well as the research papers ewill be presented at a seminar in Colombo in early June, and a similar event will be held in Delhi in July.

Sweat and blood

The Factory is in the same mould as the landmark 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple’s exhaustive account of a lengthy and complicated strike by coal mine workers in Kentucky in 1973. Kopple spent a few years with the workers and their families and captured the crests and troughs of the movement. Some of Harlan County, USA’s most stirring sequences are of the solidarity and courage displayed by the mine workers and their families, who battle violence, litigation and changes within the union with utmost clarity about their basic rights and their unquestionable contributions to their employer’s bottomline.

The Factory  also has several stories of fortitude and courage displayed by the workers, many of whom are products of Industrial Training Institutes and have a well-defined sense of what is due to them. Roy has previously examined working-class lives in his films Majma, When Four Friends Meet and The City Beautiful, but he has mostly been engaged with the informal sector, such as handloom weavers in The City Beautiful. “Labour has been an abiding interest, so there is a continuum with my previous films, but I have always worked with unorganised labour,” said Roy, who graduated from the Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi in 1987 and was a part of the generation of documentarians who worked on video and investigated the economic and social divisions that opened up in India after the Emergency. “This was the first time I was working with organised labour, but it was a very different class of labour. The big issue in the Maruti case was about dignity – the workers felt stripped of their dignity all the time. They displayed tremendous intellectual rigour and political acumen. These are not workers who are going to take things lying down – they are educated, they are on Facebook and they use smartphones – and this is something the Indian industry has to face.”

In some cases, neither a degree nor a Facebook account is needed to arrive at the realisation that big business can be the cause of unrest rather than progress. The Factory begins in Haryana and ends up in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat, where Maruti has been allotted land to set up a plant. The farmers whose land is being acquired for the project are most unhappy at Maruti’s sudden appearance on their horizon, and they declare their opposition to the project. Visuals of row upon row of cars waiting to leave the parking lot give way to lines of cows ambling over land that might, some day, become yet another battleground between the forces of profit and the human beings who are supposed to deliver it.

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