Rotterdam 2015: ‘Labour of Love’ is evocative of Satyajit Ray’s poetic style

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Labour of Love

Written by Aditya Vikram Sengupta

Directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta

India, 2014

Few films match elegant aestheticism with sharp political commentary. We might even argue that to focus on style when talking about issues of exploitation is counter-productive, to say the least—attempting to make the hardships of people living in a place identified with poverty, a city trampled by the duress of spiralling recession, the brutal and overpopulated environment of slums into a matter of poetics and lyricism might certainly seem exploitative in itself.

However, in Labour of Love, the painterly images of a couple living in Calcutta, as cinematic as they are, do not shy away from realism (of some sort, at least). A young woman (Basabdutta Chatterjee) leaves home on her way to work when her husband (Ritwick Chakraborty) has just arrived home and is getting ready for bed. Their days are revealed to us in a cross-cut: she works, he sleeps, getting ready for the next work day, until they switch roles halfway through. Instead of telling us about the reality of India’s working class, Aditya Vikram Sengupta wisely chooses to show us their daily routine of preparing meals, cleaning clothes, doing their everyday jobs, shopping for groceries and so on. The quiet, subtle manner, in which the couple’s life is depicted, sometimes requires patience and runs parallel to the type of work they do and lives they are leading—lives going unnoticed, work being done almost invisibly. In two instances when a human voice indeed is clearly audible and comprehensible, it cuts sharply and menacingly into the tender poetics of everyday life of the committed couple, speaking of the working class struggles and the death of the working class man; just as intrusively, the massive scale of unemployment crisis in India takes its toll on the personal lives of the majority of the people, forcing them to make inhuman sacrifices in order to survive.

In a way, it is almost hard to believe that Labour of Love is Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s debut feature film. Nothing like mainstream Indian cinema, its imaginative style is almost evocative of the Bengali Indian master filmmaker Satyajit Ray—in addition to opting for scarceness of dialogue and images instead of words, they certainly share a fondness for a lyrical, poetic quality of depictions of everyday life that would often be considered no more than mundane or even banal. The rhythm of sounds and images working with each other beautifully and harmoniously calls a well-oiled industrial machine to mind, mercilessly making its characters into no more than cogs on a gearwheel as they are kept in motion from dusk till dawn and back again. Though Sengupta seems at times almost dangerously mesmerised by the textures of Calcutta’s city walls, the colours of the food and the thick silver fog rolling into the narrow alleys—to the point of making the protagonists of Labour of Love into no more than symbolic embodiments of their position in the society instead of flesh-and-blood individuals with their own distinctive lives—the film nevertheless manages to employ its stylistic imaginativeness to work hand in hand with social commentary, accentuating it instead of attracting attention solely to itself and existing for its own sake. To paraphrase the title itself, it truly seems to be a work of love.

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