Chemical engineer-turned-filmmaker Sanjay Patel’s upcoming debut feature Union Leader puts the spotlight on a subject that seldom finds space in mainstream cinema of late: labour rights.

Union Leader stars Rahul Bhat and Tilottama Shome and will be released on January 19. The Hindi movie explores the plight of workers in a chemical factory in Gujarat. The conditions at the factory are deadly – workers routinely cough up blood due to repeated exposure to chromium sulphate. Jay Vohil (Bhat) is chosen as the union leader and tasked with fighting the management to demand bare minimum safety standards among other rights.

“I have a soft corner for this subject,” Patel, who works as a chemical engineer in Canada told over the phone. “Before coming to Canada, I was working at a chemical plant in Gujarat for close to seven years. During those years, I have witnessed several incidents across factories where I’ve seen the kind of dismal and dangerous conditions that chemical factory labourers are forced to work in. And this continues even to this day. This film is set in a fictional chemical plant and is based on a few of those incidents that I got to see.”

Union Leader.

During his career in India, Patel belonged to the management’s side, a position that did not stop him from empathising with the difficulties faced by the workers. “The management of these industries and corporates at large need to realise and wake up to these issues,” Patel said. “So many workers are inhaling dangerous fumes and dust. There is just no safety whatsoever. And poverty has pushed these workers to work in these circumstances without a choice.”

A self-taught filmmaker, Patel felt that cinema was the perfect medium to tell the story of precarious working conditions in Indian factories. “Cinema is a medium through which one can get best acquainted with other people’s lives, especially those far removed from our circumstances,” he said. “A lot of them tend to dismiss such films as communist propaganda. What I’m trying to say is that we must be truthful to ourselves. There are millions of workers in India who are still suffering and working in the most dangerous conditions. Often, they don’t have a voice. We are talking about our growing economies and our increasing growth rate. But let’s be honest. Is this growth happening at the cost of our workers? I also wanted to spread the message to workers – that they needn’t suffer and it is not their fate. If there are difficulties, they must speak up.”

Union Leader (2018).

Patel also felt that Bollywood is ripe with potential for such stories. “Today, we are making all kinds of films,” he said. “Enough of the masala films, honestly. The audience is looking for newer narratives.”

Union Leader has already been screened at several film festivals across the world, including the 48th International Film Festival of India held at Goa in November 2017.

Patel shot the movie at Vatva in Gujarat over the course of a month and carried out post-production in Calgary in Canada. Funding and finding the right actors for his film were both challenges, especially since he was based in Canada. Tillotama Shome plays Geeta, Vohil’s wife, in the film. She was last seen in A Death in the Gunj (2017) and Hindi Medium (2017). Bhat has acted in Ugly (2015), Fitoor (2016) and Jai Gangajaal (2016).

“I have funded the film myself,” said Patel. “I have no background in filmmaking. Whatever I know about the craft is by watching cinema. I also made a short film before embarking on this project and that experience was immensely helpful in teaching me about the craft. I think passion for an art form can indeed make things happen.”

Sanjay Patel.