The Pull-and-Push of Progress in Lathe Joshi

Movies Features Lathe Joshi
The Pull-and-Push of Progress in Lathe Joshi

India is a wellspring of diverse artistry. While its foremost cinematic export is “Bollywood” —mainstream Hindi-language productions, often taking the form of glamorous musicals—the understated Marathi indie lies immediately adjacent. Marathi is spoken throughout the state of Maharashtra; you may have heard of its capital, Mumbai, formerly Bombay, from which “Bollywood” gets its name, but the mainstream industry’s local sibling churns out some the nation’s most thoughtful (and most criminally undervalued) work on a regular basis. This year, Ravi Jadhav’s Nude explored the consequences of feminine expression in an oppressive patriarchy, while Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2014) wove an invasive tapestry as it told of caste oppression through the eyes of a child. Later this month, new Marathi tour de force Lathe Joshi plays at the 58th Asia-Pacific Film Festival, being held in Taiwan. A quietly devastating film about obsolescence, writer-director Mangesh Joshi’s eulogy for celluloid and those once tasked with cutting it by hand holds a mirror up to our rapidly evolving technological landscape. Though, ironically, the film wouldn’t have found its domestic audience to the degree it did without the digital revolution. Suffice it to say, questions of progress have no easy answers when someone is inevitably left behind.

That inevitability, for withheld protagonist Vijay Joshi (Chittaranjan Giri), means being laid off from his job after thirty years. A veteran of the lathe machine—like the director himself; this is eulogy two-fold—Joshi spent countless hours toiling away on pistons and other spare mechanical parts that he measured by hand. He was a perfectionist. An artist, even, earning him the nickname “Lathe Joshi,” as if his identity were inseparable from his trade.

Being replaced by automation is like being stripped of his sense of self. Joshi returns home to his outspoken wife (Ashwini Giri) a husk of a man, unable to tell his family what’s become of him. He spends his first few days of unemployment wandering the streets, like a spirit in limbo, detached from any Earthly purpose. The rumbles and whirrs of machines nearby (from road traffic to air conditioners; the film’s sound design is meticulous) echo like reminders of his desuetude. As a man who’s only ever seen himself through the lens of tradition, his sudden inability to provide for his wife, their aloof son (Om Bhutkar) and his aging, blind mother (Seva Chouhan) renders him useless, a feeling he doesn’t have the emotional tools to communicate. As Joshi searches for new jobs, and new ways to simply exist, he comes to the realization that the only way he’ll be happy is if he returns to what he knows. The problem therein is that’s it’s nigh impossible. Nobody makes lathe machines anymore, and buying back his old one is beyond his means. The only way he can move forward is by taking two steps back, but the world won’t afford him that either.

Technology is Joshi’s bane, shoving him into the margins of a world he doesn’t recognize, but it’s a miracle for those in his vicinity. His son, a tech whiz, builds and repairs computers from their tiny home. His wife, a cook for hire, can now fill ten times as many orders with her new food processor. His blind mother, who rarely leaves their crowded abode, might soon undergo retinal surgery, allowing her to finally lay eyes on the TV soaps she listens in on to connect with the outside world. Even Joshi’s ailing former boss, who kicked him to the curb, is being kept alive by machines. Joshi isn’t just obsolete, but outnumbered, and Chittaranjan Giri’s silent defeat speaks volumes. (Giri had to learn Marathi specifically for the role, but the scarcity of his dialogue works in the character’s favour)

While set worlds and cultures apart, Lathe Joshi bears a thematic resemblance to American contemporary The Rider, Chloé Zhao’s Native American Western, which approaches traditional narrative through a lens of modernity. With so many tales concerned with finding purpose, few deal with the fallout of losing it. As the world spins forward, finding new paradigms in which men should learn to exist, those already trapped within the walls of establishment are left with little recourse. In The Rider, horse-riding is all Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) has ever known, and it’s nearly killed him. In Lathe Joshi, Vijay Joshi has turned his trade into an artistic niche, but it that can now be carried out by machines. Like Blackburn, Joshi wanders in search of ways to fill his time now that he’s been cut off from his passion. Both men have been forcefully disconnected from all that they once were; they may as well be waiting to die.

Two Sides of a Digital Divide
Mangesh Joshi chose his experience with lathe machines to make the film more accessible, though in a recent Q&A he revealed his point of inception: a chat with a film cutter, whose profession was deemed unnecessary in a digital world. Keeping this influence in his crosshairs, the director weaves artistic identity into this tale of blue collar, kitchen-sink realism, tethering his protagonist to a form of masculine identity that, despite being fundamentally challenged, is blockaded from changing for the better. In some parallel universe, Vijay Joshi could have become a more effective communicator. He could have found a new profession where he learned to work on computers, but neither option is available to him socio-economically. We often consider change to be the cornerstone of progressive narrative, but the real-world inability to do so is seldom confronted.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Q&A in question took place after a screening in August outside the film’s regular theatrical release. It originally played in cinemas for a few weeks in July before fading into obscurity (fitting, given its subject matter) but like many films of late—Indian, American and otherwise—it found second wind via a new form of web-based distribution gaining popularity in India.

Of the two thousand or so Indian features in 2017, zero of them were shot on film. Commercial cinemas in Mumbai no longer project on celluloid, rendering the likes of trained film projectionists (and the film cutter Mangesh Joshi spoke of) relics of the past. However, thanks to the relative ease of digital distribution, Indian websites like 1018mb and Vkaao become alternatives to limited theatrical runs in an age of competition from streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar. 1018mb and Vkaao provide access to a wide selection of digital prints from across the decades, be it American classics, Indian mainstays or arthouse films from elsewhere. Rather than audiences being at the mercy of narrowing theatrical windows, they can now vote on what films they wish to see (in addition to when and where) and can set up single-screen releases for films of their choosing, both new and old. 2018 Chilean Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman, which wouldn’t have seen a theatrical release otherwise, hit select Indian cinemas for one weekend through Vkaao, while Lathe Joshi finds new audiences via sporadic screenings across the country through 1018mb, just weeks after leaving cinemas. The film’s conflicted approach to technology seems justified by its own meta-narrative.

Planned Obsolescence?
Lathe Joshi, however, isn’t prescriptive in this regard, nor does it need to be. It’s the kind of film with neither fiery speeches nor newfound discoveries that catapult Joshi into modernity. Rather than a blueprint for assimilation, it’s an understated tone poem about the inability to do so, where each scene simmers with harrowing inertia, and where Joshi’s fate is decided from the outset. Like his mother, who rarely moves from her spot on her bed, Joshi is destined to stand still in a world moving far too quickly.

The film is bittersweet, and even sweetly funny. Joshi’s son treating the family at a Chinese restaurant so his mother can learn new recipes is especially delightful; globalism has granted them access to other cultures, though there’s little to contextualize these new ideas for them. Chopsticks are as foreign to Joshi as cellphones and computers. All he can do is attempt to find comfort in the familiar, be it a cleaning job that keeps him in the vicinity of his old profession, or the triumphant drag of a cigarette to lift his spirits and re-capture his lost masculinity.

Progress, while a linear path, can’t be traversed by everyone. As Joshi’s wife evolves without him—from her modern haircut, to her hi-tech kitchen, to her brand-new car—he’s understandably intimidated. His male ego prevents him, at first, from showing any sign of vulnerability. But somewhere amidst his reluctant acceptance of his wife and son as breadwinners who provide for him, the mechanical whirs invading his psyche begin to fade.

Film cutters and projectionists have been left behind. While they ideally needn’t be collateral damage, we have the misfortune of living in a binary world. The films that tell their stories now connect with people through the very technologies that replaced them. It’s a cruelly ironic fallout of a capitalist system, but those without the means to fight it can only find ways to cope. One of Joshi’s former coworkers adapts to the digitized landscape. Another turns toward religion, much like Joshi’s own mother, who “visits” temples she never got to see by gazing at them online. Joshi may not be religious himself, but the closest thing he has to spiritual harmony is accepting the success of his wife and son—contingent, of course, on the Herculean task of quelling deep-seated masculine insecurities, adsorbed over decades.

It’s a melancholy comfort, fragile and temporary, but coping all he has. And yet, even this new pristine world has cracks that begin to show. His mother’s radio, which repeats prayers as she counts the beads of her rosary, fails beyond repair—a consequence of time. Joshi’s son can’t fix it, nor can he fix the older computers he’s sent, thanks to their outdated processors. Each new iPhone is designed to make way for its successors every couple of years; even our machines are no longer built to last, reflecting our physical selves better than we ever intended. Like his old lathe machine, the conveyor belt that replaced Joshi will eventually break down.

Lathe Joshi cuts to the beating heart of questions driving the modern world, leaving them to linger uncomfortably long after the credits. And yet, rather than tech-centered paranoia or rebellion against machinery, the film opts for the most human of resolutions to its open-ended existentialism: acceptance of the inevitable.

Sooner or later, we’ll all be outlived.

Siddhant Adlakha is an independent filmmaker, actor, TV writer and freelance film critic based in Mumbai and New York.

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