The caste of cleanliness
Vidhu Vincent, an award winning journalist and documentary filmmaker from Kerala, has hit the headlines recently when her first feature film was selected to the competition section of this year’s International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It was the first time a woman director from Kerala could make it to that category. In a chat with Narada News, she tells us about her movie, ‘Manhole’ which discusses the politics of manual scavenging, and her inspirations and aspirations to enter film making.
‘Manhole’ deals with the issue of manual scavenging. What made you choose it as the central point of your directorial debut?
For me, it’s not a new topic. Before directing Manhole, I made a documentary about the lives of sanitation workers in Kerala who are still forced to do manual scavenging as a part of their job. Kappalandy Mukku, a colony of sanitation workers in Kollam town in Kerala is near to my home. I have some close friends there. So, for me, they and their lives are not something extra-planetary. I also assist my friends there in the legal fights they put up against manual scavenging. I don’t understand it as somebody else’s problem. It’s mine as well.
From documentary to feature film – what were the challenges you faced while shifting to the new medium?
As a journalist in visual media, I considered my profession as a tool to communicate my politics with the public. The same is my approach towards cinema as well. Cinema, being a more popular and influential medium than documentary, will help me reach out to a larger audience.
However, cinema is very different from documentary in form and content. A feature film needs a different narrative structure. For example, it’s easy to communicate a political message using a documentary. It can be said in a direct manner. But in cinema, we need a story with cleverly developed plot points to entice the viewers emotionally and intellectually. The politics should be told subtly unlike in documentaries. I have found it’s more difficult, although I have enjoyed all those challenges a lot.
Could you share with us the basic plot of the movie?
The story of the movie revolves around Shalini, a woman who puts up a fight against the state on the issue of manual scavenging. Her father is a sanitation worker and mother is a domestic worker. Her father and another person who has been very close to her die in an accident while they enter a manhole during their work. But the authorities deny compensation as manual scavenging is banned and illegal (in paper) in the state. This incident shakes her but at the same time inspires her to take up a fight for getting justice for the deceased and ending manual scavenging.
For you, Manhole is not just a work of art. It’s a political statement as well. So could you say more about the politics which the movie is trying to communicate with the public?
The issue of manual scavenging has many layers. First of all, it has a caste angle. For generations, people from only certain castes are destined to do this work so that we can never find an upper caste person doing manual scavenging anywhere in this country. In Kerala’s particular case, the forefathers of the communities currently involved in sanitation works were actually brought from Tamil Nadu in 1920s for sanitation work when new municipalities had been formed at that time. Authorities promised attractive benefits including houses, land and better job environment to those people who were living in quasi-slavery in Tamil Nadu. Although the situation was slightly better, their job environment didn’t change much in Kerala also. They had to follow the manual scavenging methods and it still continues even in this 21st century.
But what the state’s attempt is to make this issue invisible. According to the Kerala government, the issue of manual scavenging doesn’t exist in the state. ‘It’s banned and nowadays nobody is doing it in Kerala’ – that’s the state’s version. Although the recent census found that there are 13,500 people forced to do manual scavenging in Kerala, the state government denied it as an error. That’s how the state responds to this inhumane practice inflicted upon the oppressed sections of our society. It is not ready to protect their pride and dignity as human beings. In Manhole, I have tried to present the critique of the caste and its relation to labour, and more importantly, the role being played by the state in maintaining this status quo.
IFFK never featured a Malayali woman director’s film in its competition section till you have got the selection in this year’s festival. How do you see that achievement?
Indeed, it’s a great achievement for me. But I am more concerned about the social condition in which we have to consider it as an achievement. Why, during the two decades of IFFK, no woman filmmaker from Kerala can’t get into the competition section? That question upsets me as woman, as a Keralite.
It’s well known that gender discrimination is a major problem in film industry. So, how was your experience as a woman filmmaker?
There are a lot of problems. But to solve those issues we need more and more women to enter film making. In case of Manhole, we had a significant participation of women artists and technicians. We took all measures to build a women-friendly atmosphere on the sets and ensured that both men and women would be treated on equal terms. I asked the male crew to avoid sexist jokes during the film shooting which are rampant in our cinema sets. So we could maintain a healthy environment throughout the production. I believe such conscious efforts are needed to find solutions to overcome the gender issues prevailing in Malayalam cinema.
What are your future plans? Do you want to stick on your new medium and make more films?
Yes, of course. There are more stories to be told and more issues to be discussed. I will definitely continue making films. I want to explore the abundant possibilities that cinema has in offer. So currently my plan is to let it go on.