“One Cube” by Pramod Dev gets under the garb of ‘empowerment’ to show the plight of working women

What do a Manipuri BPO employee in Delhi, a fisherwoman in Trivandrum and a garment worker in Tirupur have in common? Quite a lot, according to a recent documentary titled One Cube.

Directed by Pramod Dev, the film criss-crosses between the lives of three women, at home and work, exploring the difficulties they are faced with. Chun, a young Manipuri woman, is gainfully employed in Delhi, but leads a lonely existence and is filled with a longing for home. In Tirupur, Prema has to often work through the night to make ends meet for her family, and faces an uncertain future with the influx of cheap labour.

Agnes, an elderly door-to-door fish vendor in Trivandrum, has been affected by factors beyond her control – a burgeoning fish export business, and the motorisation of fish vending. She has piled up a huge debt that she is unlikely to ever pay back.

Despite the difference in contexts, the director insists the three women represent a continuous story, as the title indicates, of what happens to women as a consequence of globalisation of trade. “In 2004-05 we were witnessing something very interesting…within domestic economy there were job losses, but women were being employed more. We were perplexed by this kind of development and wanted to know what actually was the root cause of it. Was it women’s empowerment or was it something else?” he says.

Dev, a trade researcher, has been studying these trends across several countries for a few years now. But seeing no uptake for these studies, he decided to change lanes to carry out what he calls ‘research on camera’.

The film started in April 2010, with funds from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He chose three export driven sectors in India, which had created opportunities that didn’t earlier exist for women. But far from empowering women, these opportunities reinforced existing social conditions. In the garment factories of Tirupur, for instance, young women are hired, under the Sumangali Scheme, on contract for a specific period after which they are paid a lump sum to be used for a dowry. In BPOs girls are chosen on the basis of their ‘docility’. “Usually any movie about globalisation will have a villain – U.S., World Bank or WTO. But in my film society is the villain,” he says.

The oppression of women is conveyed visually too. The women have little control over their space and time. They are filmed within constricted spaces, and with a camera that constantly looks down on them, to convey their powerlessness. “On the editing table, we put together a structure of time. I wanted to show time running away and people running after it,” Dev adds.

Having studied this issue extensively, Dev knew how to approach the subject theoretically.

“We were also somewhat clear about the nuances of what was happening. We wanted to show how trade modulates daily life. We had a detailed recce of three months, and planned out extensively how to go about it. But the thing with shooting a documentary is how much you plan, on the ground everything goes haywire. The shooting took a course of its own,” the director says. It proved difficult to get women to appear on camera to share their stories.

Dev’s next film is called The Invisible Hands — India, and makes use of an ILO study that says that unpaid work by women amounts to a whopping 2.17 trillion rupees.