Natasha Raheja’s Cast in India (2014) was among the documentaries and features screened at the recent annual festival of the International Women in Radio and Television in Delhi. Cast in India opens with a shot of New York City’s iconic sewer covers and then travels to one of the several foundries in Howrah in West Bengal where they are produced. The production process is depicted from the start to the finish, and although the film was shot over many days, it has been edited to look like it takes place over a working day, said Raheja, a PhD candidate of Anthropology at New York University.
“The workers wore the same work clothes to work for the duration of my production schedule, which was fortuitous for narrative continuity,” Raheja said. “Funnily, the day I called it a wrap was the day when some of the workers featured wore another set of work clothes.”
The 26-minute documentary eschews a voiceover, since Raheja wanted to avoid the “long documentary film history of headless narrators talking over and for brown bodies”. We see the strenuous work in basic and potentially hazardous conditions that creates the manhole covers for a fraction of what they cost as well as the camaraderie between the workers. Film songs sung by the men float over the clanging and hissing sounds, and there are snatches of conversations about an impending wedding. A brief agitation over contractual obligations threatens to interrupt the shaping of molten metal into a product every New Yorker will recognise.
“Sewer covers are an iconic and ubiquitous feature of the NYC urban landscape,” said Raheja, who has also shot, edited and produced the film. “Shortly after I moved to the city four years ago from Texas, I was on a stroll and looked down to notice the ground beneath my feet. Dotting the streets were manhole covers emblazoned with a Made in India stamp. This intrigued me. I was curious about this circuit of exchange and decided to explore it through film.”
The outsourcing of production of the sewer covers to India to save money has led to a debate within America. Cast in India is the latest in a series of investigative reports that question the imperative of the Department of Environmental Protection, which handles sewer cover operations in New York City, to cut costs down on without bothering about manufacturing conditions or workplace safety regulations. The documentary “raises questions around the disparate conditions of geographies of production and consumption of NYC manhole covers”, Raheja said, adding, “I also aim to point to the labour infrastructure otherwise concealed in the built infrastructure of New York City.”
The workers seem to have a sense of humour about the situation. “I’ll go to America! We’ll all go to America!” one says.