The Men Behind Machines: A Glimpse at India’s Textile Mills

Assistant professor of Comparative Arts and Letters Robert Colson details the working conditions of textile mills found in India and Rahul Jain’s documentary Machines.

We love machines, and we love seeing them at work. Whether it’s the assembly of a microchip or the bustle of larger factory automatons, watching machinery is oddly fascinating. To Americans, a machine represents industry, the ever-churning heart of capitalism that makes innovation possible. But for others, this is less true. For many, machines are something less, a tool that allows for a barely livable wage at the cost of a day’s toil and grit. In his recent lecture to BYU’s International Cinema, professor Robert Colson detailed the difficult life of migrant workers in India’s textile mills and introduced audiences to Machines, a documentary that sheds further light on the men behind the gears.

Machines is unique in that it has no soundtrack, voiceover, or expository text. Instead, the film features a combination of interviews and B-roll footage that shows factory floors at their busiest. Instead of the picture created by auto-industry commercials where workers wear protective gear gesture and smile at robotic arms, the men of Gujarat, India work in a damp, dark textile mill that churns out an innumerable amount of fabric and cloth.

“It’s mesmerizing to watch these textiles move,” said Colson. “At the same time, you have to think through what you are seeing and process this.” To truly picture the factory floor, Colson invited audiences to imagine the overwhelming smell of ammonia which dominates the air of textile mills. Colson shared that it was director Rahul Jain’s sincere intention “to bring ammonia to the screen.”

The conditions that Jain chooses to showcase in Machines are abysmal. There is no wonder or whimsy on the assembly line as boys and men work 12-hour shifts day after day. There is only work. “There are no other options,” explains one of the workers, “But what is poverty anyway? Poverty is harassment. One has to forsake one’s kids, wife, and parents to come here. You can’t do anything. There is no cure.”

This pessimism is shared by many as attempts to unionize are violently suppressed and striking for better conditions means forgoing daily wages. With no choice but to continue working, workers are left “resigned to solutions that may never happen.” Colson explained that the desired changes that many possess are heartbreakingly “modest, yet impossible.”

Machines is a deeper exploration of the world’s increasingly concerning industry. Behind the veil of commercialized products and shiny factory floors is a difficult and demoralizing life for thousands of migrant workers. However, the stories of these men and women around the world do not have to remain isolated. Knowledge of these conditions that is the first step in helping enact global change to create the world to be as prosperous, safe, and poverty-free as we always imagined it to be.

For those interested, International Cinema will hold additional showings of Machines on Friday February 23 at 5:00 p.m. and on Saturday February 24 at 7:30 p.m.


Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in News Media with a minor in Political Science.