A Humane Document On Celluloid

in 21st Kerala International Film Festival

by Shoma Chatterji

Manhole, the first feature film directed by Vidhu Vincent, has won the Best Film Prize in the section on Malayalam cinema at the 21 st International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), awarded by the FIPRESCI Jury. The members of the FIPRESCI Jury were Salome Kikaleishvili from Georgia; Anders E Larsson from Sweden; and myself, Shoma A. Chatterji, from India. The jury was unanimous in its decision of choosing Manhole as the best film. The citation that came from the FIPRESCI Jury went as follows: We chose the film Manhole “for the raw reality with which the film sheds light on the persistent inhumanity of manual scavengers in India, despite its being legally banned, in a cinematically eloquent manner.” Vincent is the first-ever female director to win an award at the IFFK over its twenty-year history, and it also won the Best Film Award for the Malayalam cinema section from the International Jury.

Narrated to resemble a documentary film in the broadest sense, Manhole explores the terrible world of sewage cleaners through the lives – and deaths – of an old man and a youngster who perish while cleaning the sewers as their sole means of existence. Despite the Manual Scavenging Act passed in 1993, and amended with a Bill in 2006 that prohibits employment as manual scavengers, sewer holes across the country are cleaned manually, which leads to the death of innocent people (a) due to negligence on the part of the state that (b) employs them contractually and therefore illegally and (c) does not follow adequate safety measures, (d) due to the tragic fact that these men are born into the profession and (e) last, but not the least, they belong to the lowest tier of the caste ladder among Hindus in India. They are considered “untouchables” (or Dalits) shunned by the very mainstream which, ironically, cannot exist without their service on a day-to- day basis.

As per the Act, these manholes should not be cleaned manually but only with machines. If a person is cleaning the manhole all the same, they should be provided with safety equipment. But the authorities do not do so, which is illegal. One character in Manhole actually narrates how his father was a sewer-cleaner and he “inherited” the profession. He adds that if his son refuses to follow the family line, he must either educate himself for a better job under categories reserved for them or die of starvation. But education is a rare event in their lives, because they can neither afford the time nor do they have the means to educate themselves. Most of them are too ignorant to understand the value of education.

Two years back, Vidhu Vincent made the award-winning documentary Caste of Cleanliness (Vrithiyude Jathi) about people in a colony in her neighbourhood at Kappalandimukku in Kollam. It reveals an issue almost invisible to the public, about men who clamber down around 25 feet into manholes to clear human and other excreta. They are illiterate, ignorant and extremely poor. They cannot work in any other field, because people from even slightly upper castes will not give them work. According to the 2011 census, there are 13,000 manual scavenging workers in Kerala. However, the government looks the other way rather than face the fact and act on it.

Manhole is a fictionalised film in a similar vein on the same subject, based on several true stories. A touching scene illustrates this without dialogue or drama, showing a woman from the slums, whose duties are confined to the compound of the house as a maid; her employer pours water into her metal receptacle from another glass held at a height lest this action should lead to physical contact or even their glasses touching. Their living conditions are inhuman as they lack basic facilities of running water, medical aid and so on. Within this life of squalor rises Shalini, a girl whose father is a manual sewer cleaner and the mother works also. She educates herself 2 while helping her mother, and rises to become a legal activist fighting cases in the human rights court for justice and compensation for the families of those who lost their men in the dungeons called sewers or manholes.

Vincent adopts a no-nonsense, nearly linear structure for the narration, except the circular line she strategically uses to end where the film began: in the small office of a human rights court where Shalini, now grown up to become a legal activist, is arguing one of her more important cases about a young man whose family should be compensated for his death caused by his work in a manhole. The other lawyer represents the government, while the magistrate keeps posting different days for the final hearing. The time leap that shows a studious and responsible Shalini studying for the XII standard exams to become a young, straight-talking, intelligent and attractive woman is smoothly brought across by the seamless editing of Appu Bhattathiri.

For a film centred on Ayya Swami, a man who dies while cleaning a manhole, leaving his wife Pappathi, a housemaid and Shalini with a future that is darker and grimmer than the one he could afford, Shalini hides her caste identity from her friends in school firstly because she is ashamed to admit that she is from the Dalit caste and untouchable, and secondly because she is afraid of being shunned by her friends. But when her father dies, her friends get to know her background and shun her socially. She begins to work in a shopping mall and also carries on with her studies while her mother continues her job as housemaid. She graduates in law, but her life takes a 180-degree turn only after her young friend, Marimuth, studying for his exams, dies while cleaning a manhole: her life now has a purpose. Many of the lead actors have been drawn from the real world of marginalised workers, and they therefore appear as if they belong to the environment in which they are placed and positioned.

Manhole is stripped entirely of soppy, sentimental melodrama that could have worked for a mass audience, but that would have made it more of a compromised mainstream film. The violence of the entire social system rooted in a topsy-turvy caste hierarchy forms the film’s core message, and the film treats it with subtlety and razor-sharp honesty. The script written jointly by Vincent, Vijayakumar and Umesh Omanakuttan keeps the narrative tightly-knit, and with a running time of 85 minutes it leaves no room for drama or histrionics. This straightforwardness makes the film a fine document on the gross violation of human rights in the world’s largest democracy. The background score by Siddhartha Pradeep is very low-key and mood-centric, and the sound by Faizal Ahmed keeps the rhythm and pace with the serious and sombre mood of this very humane film. It does not once digress into pedagogic verbosity, nor does it try to evoke the any sympathy – synthetic or real – of the audience.

Saji Kumar’s camera wanders across the narrow gullies of the slum neighbourhood, where most of the film’s actions take place, while at times the screen goes entirely dark, lit by a small metaphorical light through a small, white, circular motif. Sometimes the camera invites you to peep into the bottomless pit of a manhole across a dark screen from the top, offering you a tiny glimpse into the darkness that lies within – a darkness as physical reality, tinged with the constant fear of danger and death, of ignorance, illiteracy and poverty, of life minus the brightness of light; a darkness that emerges from human life lived without dignity that, like all fellow-humans, it rightly deserves.

Edited by Birgit Beumers