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Getting caste out of the closet

Updated - July 30, 2017 09:14 am IST

Published - July 29, 2017 04:00 pm IST

No one likes to look at excreta. But this is precisely what filmmaker Divya Bharathi makes you do in Kakkoos

Face it: The poster of Kakkoos

A few minutes into 28-year-old filmmaker Divya Bharathi’s new documentary Kakkoos (Toilet), there’s a shirtless, middle-aged man dredging a septic tank with a shovel. This is part of a montage of shots, showing workers cleaning sewer holes and open drains with their bare hands as well as sweeping and picking up human faeces from street sides. There is also a shot where the camera tentatively moves towards a public toilet, only to reveal it so covered with faeces that it’s frankly confounding how people managed to do their business there.

No one likes to look at shit. This is precisely what Bharathi makes you do for a large part of her 109-minute long Tamil documentary (subtitled in English). What she seems to be saying is that if it’s so hard to look at shit for a couple of hours, imagine what it must feel like to clean it every day of your life and sometimes die in it.

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Kakkoos has been viewed 1.7 lakh times on YouTube at last count.

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Divya Bharathi
 

Little difference

Bharathi was in the news recently when she was arrested in connection with her participation in a protest against a Dalit student’s death due to negligence in a government hospital some years ago.

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In October 2015, she was part of another protest. “Two men died while cleaning a public sewer. I happened to take part in the protests asking for justice and due compensation for their families,” says Bharathi. This was in the temple city of Madurai, which is where Bharathi lives. She adds, “It was then that I realised that there is this huge group of people who we never think about. Who practise this inhuman profession and pay dearly every day for it, sometimes with their lives.”

Bharathi has documented 27 cases of men who died cleaning sewers in public and private enterprises and sometimes even in homes. The Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), the only NGO in India that works for the complete abolishment of manual scavenging—the practice of removing untreated human excreta by another human—says more than 1,370 people have died in sewer holes in the last four years.

This was after the Supreme Court notified a law in 2013 prohibiting manual scavenging in any form in India. Those found guilty can be jailed for up to five years. A compensation of ₹10 lakh is to be given to the family of any person who dies ‘during the job’.

The law seems to be making little difference though. The death toll keeps rising and only a few families of the deceased have been compensated.

Meeting Mahalakshmi, the wife of one of the workers who died, was probably the catalyst for the film project, she says. “His body was filthy, the mortuary staff refused to put his body in a freezer because he was Chakkiliyar (A Dalit sub-group). None of us could even come near the body because of the smell of sewage and death. But Mahalakshmi was wailing and lying all over him and at moments talking with him as if he was still alive. This moved me immensely,” says Bharathi.

Bharathi was born and brought up in a cotton mill workers community outside Aruppukottai, around 60 kilometres from Madurai city, and her interest in films was nurtured even in this unlikely setting.

“World cinema classics such as Bicycle Thieves , The Hour of the Furnaces and Battleship Potemkin were screened in a film appreciation forum run by a comrade there,” says Bharathi, who is also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). “Madhikannan, who organised these film screenings and, more importantly, the discussions we had, helped shape my perspectives on cinema a great deal. I believe this also helped me in putting Kakkoos together.”

In her day job, Bharathi produces and edits wedding videos in Madurai, and this gave her and her husband Kala Gopal the necessary expertise to produce the film. Another colleague Palani also helped them with the filming. “My husband and I had a camera worth ₹9,000. We also pledged two of my gold chains for a ₹30,000 loan,” she says. They managed to raise another ₹30,000 through crowdfunding. “We travelled for two years across Tamil Nadu, visiting and developing a relationship with sanitation workers and manual scavengers in 25 towns and cities.” While filming, it was important, she says, that they did not show any disgust. “If you retch or vomit, they would take it as being disrespectful of their work. Having said that, there was one time when I did end up vomiting while filming. It was when we had to film a woman cleaning disposed sanitary pads from a public toilet. It was the most nauseating thing I had smelt and seen in my life.”

Systematic discrimination

All those who do manual scavenging belong to Dalit castes such as Pallar, Paraiyar, Arunthathiyar, Kuruvas or Ottars. In Kakkoos there are instances where the systematic discrimination against these communities is highlighted. At one point a woman worker from Karur says: “In school, my boy is asked to clean the rooms and the bathrooms because we are Dalit. They even asked him to clean the school’s septic tank. How can we keep sending our children to these schools?”

In another shot, a young boy who cleans garbage in Tirunelveli says, “None of us can really go to school because they don’t treat us the same way. When my parents are ill, the supervisor asks us to come and do their job.”

Even by official estimates, nearly eight lakh people are employed in this profession across India. If the film is a reflection of how children from these communities are treated, that is a massive number of people being deprived of a shot at a better life. As a manual scavenger from Madurai says, “I say this with a lot of sadness but even after 30 years, I don’t think my children will be allowed or be able to do anything but this dirty work.”

The writer is an independent journalist based in the Nilgiris who enjoys the company of a friendly neighbourhood Indian gaur. @sibi123

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