Year of the Woman

The lives of others: In conversation with Divya Bharathi

Divya is presently shooting in the coastal hamlets of Kanniyakumari, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Ockhi.

Divya is presently shooting in the coastal hamlets of Kanniyakumari, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Ockhi.   | Photo Credit: A. Shaikmohideen

‘We may have developed technologies in various fields, but these people still clean with their hands’

Divya Bharathi has lost count of the number of times she has been detained by the police for staging protests, both as a student leader and as a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). But nothing can keep the documentary filmmaker from spotlighting the lives of the marginalised, especially Dalit women.

When her documentary Kakkoos, on manual scavenging, released this February, she received hundreds of phone calls and messages on social media from unknown people threatening to rape and kill her, she tells me. The documentary lays bare the appalling working conditions of thousands of manual scavengers, the failure of law enforcing agencies and the caste dynamics that perpetuate the practice.

The catalyst for the film was her meeting with the widow of a manual scavenger who had died while cleaning a septic tank in Madurai, where Divya now lives. She took part in a protest to demand action against government officials for encouraging the illegal practice. “We may have developed technologies in various fields, but these people still clean with their hands. Government agencies do not see anything wrong with it. They take advantage of their poverty,” says Divya. Following the documentary, Divya recalls times when her phone would ring every five minutes. “And when I answered, people would call me names and threaten me.”

She has since had to fight multiple cases filed against her over the documentary, which, some individuals claimed, went ‘against national integration’. The screening of Kakkoos was stalled in several parts of Tamil Nadu. The police claimed it would lead to law and order problems. “I’m not afraid of these cases,” she says. “If I was, I wouldn’t have been a student leader.”

A supporter

As a law student in Madurai she often found herself in police stations to file complaints on behalf of women who had faced domestic violence and caste-related atrocity. “Women and Dalits are the most exploited, as there is nobody to help them,” she says.

Divya tells me about how she first grew interested in photography and filmmaking. Her father bought her a camera with his savings when she moved to Madurai and was struggling to make ends meet. Soon, Chaplin Studio was born. She and her husband shot pictures and videos for birthdays and weddings. “But, that was only to survive. In my heart, I always wanted to use the camera to shoot a film on the lives of manual scavengers, whose lives cannot be imagined by most people,” she says.

In the midst of the backlash over Kakkoos, she found a supporter in civil rights activist Irom Sharmila who had by then settled down in Kodaikkanal. “When I logged on to Facebook one morning I saw a video of Irom Sharmila pledging support to me.” Irom asked her to be the bridesmaid at her wedding in August. To Divya, “it was the happiest moment of my life.”

Armed with a camera, Divya is presently shooting in the coastal hamlets of Kanniyakumari district, which bore the brunt of Cyclone Ockhi.

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 8:50:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/divya-bharathi-says-she-received-hundreds-of-threatening-calls-after-her-film-kakkoos-on-manual-scavenging-released/article22325163.ece

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