In September 2022, Zwigato, a Hindi-language film about the lives of food delivery workers in India, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival amid much fanfare. The movie was released for the general public earlier this year, and was widely applauded for uncovering “the dark side” of India’s gig economy.
Rest of World spoke to three food delivery riders in New Delhi who have watched Zwigato. They said that while they appreciated the movie for highlighting their struggles, such as the discrimination they face and unreasonable customer demands, Zwigato only managed to scratch the surface. “Zwigato has shown 30% of what we actually face in reality while making deliveries,” Inderbhan, a 30-year-old delivery rider, told Rest of World. All three workers asked to use only their first names, fearing retribution from the gig platforms.
Zwigato is directed by filmmaker Nandita Das, who also wrote the film, along with Samir Patil, founder of Indian digital publication Scroll. Its name is a portmanteau of Swiggy and Zomato, India’s biggest food delivery companies. The movie tells the story of Manas Singh Mahto, a fictional food delivery rider in Bhubaneswar, a Tier 2 city in the eastern state of Odisha. It takes viewers into the lives of Indian gig workers, following their struggles to chase incentives and 5-star ratings, deal with restaurant owners, and navigate the hierarchies of gender, caste, and religion baked into the profession.
The protagonist Mahto, played by comedian Kapil Sharma, has been a delivery rider for just over a month at the start of the film. Every morning, he throws on his Zwigato uniform — an orange T-shirt, a matching helmet, and a blue delivery bag — and rides his bike to the nearest gas station to fill up its tank. Every day, he promises his family that he will make 10 deliveries, the minimum he needs to earn an incentive. Something or the other, however, invariably gets in the way.
Delivery riders told Rest of World that Zwigato missed out on some important issues they tended to face. These included not being allowed into elite apartment complexes, getting attacked by pet dogs, and the difficulty of navigating traffic while trying to deliver hot food on time.
“The customers have taken the ‘food at your doorstep’ policy too seriously,” said Roshan, 35. “Some apartments in Delhi don’t have elevators, and I have personally met customers who are so heartless that they don’t even come down to the second or third floor to take deliveries. We travel in such scorching heat, and are then expected to climb four or five floors to deliver food just because it satisfies the ego of the customers.”
A few scenes in Zwigato show how domestic help and delivery riders are either expected to take the stairs in Indian apartment buildings or are relegated to a “service lift” — a problematic rule that ensures residents don’t need to interact with workers.
Some apartment buildings don’t have parking facilities for gig workers, who are under pressure from the apps to make deliveries on time. They end up parking in no-parking zones, which can lead to fines and their vehicles being towed. “I once had to pay a fine of 500 rupees [$6] because my bike was towed by the authorities while I was making deliveries inside a building,” Inderbhan said. “If I earn 1,000 rupees a day, pay a fine of 500, and put petrol worth 200 rupees in my bike, what am I even taking home?” For gig workers, 1,000 rupees is not a small amount. “I could spend the whole day delivering all across Delhi and not make that sum,” Inderbhan said.
The delivery riders expressed frustration with the term “partner,” used to refer to gig workers in the film. They told Rest of World the term isn’t accurate, as they believe they’re often last in their company’s list of priorities. “I remember making rounds of the company’s office, calling them so many times but they fail to do us justice each time,” said Inderbhan.
In Zwigato, the protagonist is inundated with loud notifications and a virtual boss who constantly leaves instructions — but there’s no room for a two-way conversation. Mahto can barely grab a bite before the app buzzes again. At one point, he comments dryly, “Ghulaami toh yahaan bhi puraa hai, lekin maalik nahi dikhaayi detaa” (“This is also slavery, but one where we can’t see the master”). This dialogue deeply resonated with the delivery riders who watched the film.
Ashish, 25, loved the film for showing some of the mundane aspects of his daily work. “Even after working with the food delivery company for three and a half years now, I still sit in a market area in the hope of getting more and more orders. I sit with other partners to discuss strategies to fetch more orders,” he said, alluding to a scene where Mahto is anxiously waiting on orders alongside other delivery riders.
“We took this job because it sold us a ‘flexible hours’ policy, but we slowly see our lives transition into one of bonded labor,” said Roshan.
The flexible hours are accompanied by exhausting night shifts and drunken, rowdy customers. While one scene in Zwigato features a customer who is drunk, he is not shown actually interacting with the delivery worker. When Ashish had encountered a group of drunken men while making a delivery, he had flagged it to the company. “The company turned a deaf ear to my alert and said that I had to make the delivery,” he said.
According to the delivery workers, the movie — in choosing to tell the story of Mahto — spent a lot of time bringing out his personal struggles at home. While this probably made his character more relatable to viewers, they said, it left little room to dig deeper into the problems with gig work.
“As much as we feel we are getting space in the cinema, I don’t think our troubles or exploitation will in any way affect the customers or the company,” said Roshan. The other two delivery workers agreed with him.
“We are just bonded laborers for the company and servants to the customers,” said Inderbhan.