Divya Bharathi’s powerful documentary Kakkoos (Toilet), about the prevalence of manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu, is very difficult to watch – imagine what it is like to have to clear human refuse every single day.
After a recent screening in Chennai, Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson was lost for words. “It is difficult to speak after watching this documentary,” said Wilson, the national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan. “This documentary is a 360-degree picturisation of the lives of sanitation workers in our country. There is no angle that has not been covered.”
Bharathi discovered that although manual scavenging is outlawed across the country, it continues to be widely practised in Tamil Nadu. The 25-year-old law graduate from Arapukottai near Madurai visited 25 towns and cities and recorded the heart-rending stories of several workers, most of whom are Dalits. Bharathi collected over 90 hours of footage over a year, which was edited down to an under 120-minute expose of institutionalised discrimination, caste prejudice and governmental apathy. Bharathi hopes to evoke anger, rather than sympathy, through her documentary, she told Scroll.in.
What prompted you to make ‘Kakkoos’?
In October 2015, two labourers died after entering a septic tank in Madurai. For at least three days, several workers protested on the streets demanding justice. I participated in that protest too. It was only then that I learnt about the 2013 legislation prohibiting manual scavenging. Only after I spent three days with these labourers was I able to understand their language – and how they were living.
The wife of one of the victims was Mahalakshmi. She was a little over 20 years old. While the post mortem was going on, she had her hand raised and kept saying, “I am coming, I am coming.” Finally when the body was brought out, she rushed towards the rotting corpse, hugged it and wept. That moment was when I thought I have to make this film.
You are a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Did your politics influence your filmmaking?
I have always wanted to be a political documentary filmmaker. My role model is the Argentinian director Fernando Solanas. The way Che Guevara lifted the gun, Solanos lifted his camera.
I thought about making a film because nobody I know reads much these days. You can give people a 400-page book on manual scavenging, but who will read it? I felt that the visual medium was more powerful and had greater reach.
I wanted to make a documentary, but did not know how to. The one thing I knew was editing. In Madurai, I edited videos for weddings and other functions for a living. So that skill came in handy. My husband and I had a camera worth Rs 9,000. We pledged two of my chains and took Rs 30,000 for our expenses. We didn’t have much else, but we had legs, so we took the camera and kept walking. One month later, our cameraman, Palani, joined us.
Did you have a script before you started shooting?
I had no script of any sort. I learnt everything on the way, while talking to people. I first thought that I would talk to the ten families that had lost loved ones to manual scavenging. That is when I realised that if I didn’t talk about the injustice involved in the act and the caste system as a whole, there was no point to the documentary.
I travelled across 25 towns and cities. My husband, Kala Gopal, our cameraman Palani and I would step off a bus and walk through the streets. If we arrived at a place in an auto or a car, everyone would get scared looking at us, thinking we had come for inspection work. So we would get off buses and walk around 20 kilometres in every town or city.
We managed to raise Rs 30,000 for expenses through crowdfunding on Facebook. We began our shoot in February in 2016. Over one year, I must have stood outside more than 100 dirty toilets. It was not an easy task, because the workers were often scared to be on camera. To win their trust, we would roam around with each worker for at least four days. We stayed in their houses and ate their food. They should not see you as an outsider. They have to see you as one of them.
How challenging was it to shoot at public toilets?
I have lived a middle class life, so I have never used a public toilet. On the first day, when I began to shoot in a Madurai toilet, I couldn’t stand being in one. But you cannot interview manual scavengers if you are squeamish. You cannot scrunch up your nose and hold a handkerchief – there would be nothing more insulting for them. If we cannot even stand in these toilets, imagine how it must be working in them!
Often, when you have to take a low shot of labourers cleaning sewage, you have to stand in the drains along with them. But if you betray any disgust, you will hurt them terribly. It is a very sensitive issue.
I soon started to get used to the smell of shit and toilets. I even started to see toilets in my dreams! But what I still can’t get over is the smell of toilets full of used sanitary napkins. It was so difficult to take shots of workers clearing napkins in a ladies toilet, because the smell was so horrible. This was the only time I vomitted during the entire shoot.
What were the interviews with the workers and their families like?
It was very emotionally challenging to interview the families of workers who have died while cleaning septic tanks. To find the address of each of these families, I had to go to the hospitals where the post mortems were conducted, pay a bribe and get the family details. We had to travel to remote areas in the hope that they still lived there.
When you search so much for them and then listen to the injustice behind every death, it is heartbreaking. But as a filmmaker, you cannot sit there and cry in front of them as well. How can you raise questions if you break down and cry?
Amudhan RP’s 2002 documentary ‘Pee’ also looks at manual scavenging through the story of one worker. How do you feel you have dealt with the subject differently?
The film Pee gives a very shocking picture of manual scavenging. It shows us how things are. But we also need to see how we can change the situation. Not much can be done with descriptions alone. We also need to explain more about caste discrimination, where it comes from and how it manifests itself. We need to understand the larger context of how this plays out in Tamil Nadu as well, and the governmental negligence involved. We need to understand how women are being exploited every day while being made to do this work.
Did you run into trouble with authorities during the shoot?
Yes, we did. While shooting on the streets, you cannot use a tripod or level mic or the sanitary inspectors and supervisors will see you. They will spoil your shoot, and the worker will lose his job too. So while roaming with the worker for a few days, we got to know the exact time when the sanitary inspector came by. You had to be alert at all times. In many places, they stopped the shoot. In one place, the sanitary inspector broke our camera lens.
What impact do you hope the documentary will have?
We do not want people to sympathise with the workers after seeing the film. We want the film to stir viewers into action, to provoke radical change. This film is entirely about government failure and the politics of manual scavenging. The government hasn’t even thought about how to bring in machinery to do this work. As long as the other castes look at Dalits as cheap labour and perceive them as people meant to do such work, they will never think about liberating them.