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The market is a cruel taskmaster

Chloe Ruthven’s film Jungle Sisters hurtles through the complexity of industrial development in south India. At the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015.

William Eichler
12 June 2015
Chloe Ruthven, Jungle Sisters, 2015. All rights reserved.

Chloe Ruthven, Jungle Sisters, 2015. All rights reserved.The market is a cruel taskmaster. It uproots people from their villages and drags them into the maelstrom of the modern city. Traditional communal ties are broken, families are separated, and millions have to adjust to a new rhythm of life. Today, modern Asia is undergoing a massive feat of social engineering as countries such as India and China become increasingly integrated into the global economy. Men, women and children are on the move in record numbers. For some it will be worth it; for others not. It is a wrenching transition, felt at every level of society.

Chloe Ruthven’s film Jungle Sisters, screening as part of the Open City Documentary Festival, is an attempt to make sense of this tumultuous process. At its centre is Orlanda Ruthven, the director’s younger sister, whose job is to scour India’s vast rural terrain for able bodies willing to work in Bangalore’s garment factories. The Ruthvens have a troubled relationship. 18 years ago, Orlanda moved to India from the UK and never returned home, a fact their father joked was down to her older sister. Chloe disapproves of Orlanda’s job and Orlanda thinks Chloe is a “typical middle class lefty.” “Stop being judgmental and come and see for yourself,” she tells her. So that’s what Chloe does.  

Orlanda’s ideological make-up becomes apparent in the first few minutes of the film. In a talk given to a group of business students, she outlines the government’s ambitious 2008 policy to train 500 million workers by 2022. “We’re taking the masses from the countryside!” she declares with the messianic confidence of someone working as the visible hand of the market. There are two ways to view this process, she then cautions her audience: the workers could be “adversely incorporated” (a euphemism for overtly exploited) or, and it is clear she feels this is more likely, they could reap the benefits from the trickle down of wealth that would inevitably ensue.

Banu and Bhunta are hoping to reap the benefits. Two village girls in their late teens, they are helped by Orlanda to find work in one of Bangalore’s many garment factories. India’s garment sector accounts for 16.63 percent of its export earnings and employs 3.5 million people. Bangalore itself has 1,200 factories, providing jobs to 500,000 workers. For Banu and Bhunta, this commercial hub promises an extra wage for their families and a modicum of independence. Perhaps even successful futures as entrepreneurs. It is not, however, that simple and Ruthven captures the multiple pressures acting on the girls as they attempt to join the modern workforce.

On their arrival to Bangalore the girls are expected to adjust to a radically new way of life. They work long hours in the factory. They are constantly under the intrusive gaze of domineering foremen. After they’ve clocked off they are required to return to the hostel immediately where their lives are governed by yet more rules, including a curfew which prevents them from venturing into the city. It is a harsh disciplinary regime designed to mould the new arrivals into efficient factory workers. And it also contravenes many of India’s labour laws. Orlanda is concerned but, fearing the loss of her job, she prevaricates about the best course of action. 

And here is the crux of the issue. Orlanda cares about those in her charge and she wants a better life for them. But she is constrained by the logic of the market. “We’re a market organisation” she says, “which means that you end up possibly doing a lot of violence when you’re unaware of it because you are just constantly viewing things in terms of getting the business done.” Yes, there is a certain amount of rationalisation here. But she has a point. The invisible hand of the market also constrains its many foot soldiers.

Jungle Sisters doesn’t end here though. It would be easy for Ruthven to cut off the story with a clear message about the evils of capitalism and the multinationals that exploit the cheap labour of the developing world. But she doesn’t do this. Banu and Bhunta, homesick and chafing under the restrictions of factory life, decide to return home to their villages and it is not long before they are regretting their decision. Their parents begin to push them towards marriage and it becomes clear that their villages, their homes and the codes of behaviour that govern these spaces are no less strict than those they toiled under in Bangalore. There are no foremen here but families can be just as authoritarian.

Banu and Bhunta’s situation is one that millions of young people are facing in the developing world. As the Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra writes, “Hundreds of millions of young people are negotiating a path between the Scylla of oppressive family and community and the Charybdis of a promised but exacting individual freedom.” There are no easy answers to this dilemma. The market is a cruel taskmaster and the world it is creating is a punishing one. But the world it is destroying is not necessarily much easier, particularly if you are a woman.

There is no room for despair though. Orlanda, two months after her paean to neoliberal globalisation, is more aware of the dangers of unchecked corporate power and takes up the cause of the newly minted workers in her charge. She continues to work in her role finding factory jobs for the rural poor. But she abandons her earlier faith in the miracle of unrestrained markets and begins to agitate on behalf of labour rather than, as she was before, simply serving the interests of capital.

Chloe is sceptical of the potential for Orlanda’s reformism to do much good. Taking advantage of her privileged position as narrator, she even calls her younger sister “naive” in the voice-over. (Perhaps their father had a point about Orlanda’s reason for leaving.) But sibling rivalry aside, this is an informative documentary. Chloe’s conclusion, that “we’re much further in the jungle than I first realised,” is an honest admission but it doesn’t offer any answers. Perhaps that’s the point. There are no simple answers and we should be sceptical of those, like Orlanda’s earlier self, who claim otherwise.

Jungle Sisters is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015.

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