Vidhu Vincent curls up on the couch. She looks comfortable there, in that Thiruvananthapuram apartment, with the friends who have stood by her these past few months, working together on a project they all believed in. She starts a story that they complete in turns. They are not sure when their idea to tell the story became the making of a film called Manhole. Perhaps it happened when they wanted to take this true story to a larger audience.
“It is not one true story. It is many true incidents,” Vidhu says, a hand on her specs. As she begins to elaborate, she gets a phone call and Vidhu’s voice changes pitches. She is excited, so much that one of her friends — Umesh Omanakuttan, the scriptwriter — has to tell her to keep it down. But when she hangs up, the joy spreads across the room. Her film has been chosen as one of the only two Malayalam films in the competition category of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), 2016. If you look at the 20 editions of the IFFK before this, it would be the first a time a woman filmmaker from Kerala makes this mark.
“That came as a surprise to me. But then it should not be, because we have got so few women on the technical side,” Vidhu says. She is happy and proud but this is not something she thought of when she wanted to make the film. She had been working as a journalist for many years now, and coming across serious issues is part of her job. This particular issue — of the men who went down the manholes to work in it, despite the laws of the land being against it — had affected her enough to make a documentary two years ago. Vritiyude Jathi or Caste and Cleanliness has been about the lives of people who lived in a place called ‘Thotti colony’, in her neighbourhood in Kollam.
“In the 1920s, when we still used dry toilets, no Malayalee wanted to clean them. So people came from parts of Tamil Nadu. They belonged to the Arunthathiyar caste. In Kerala however they came to be called the Chakiliyar community. Even after we started using wet toilets, they continued to do the same work. The work supposed to be done by machines — scavenging, sweeping, cleaning...,” Vidhu says. When she decided to make a film of it, Umesh, who is doing his research in law at the JNU, joined Vidhu. “Even though manhole scavenging has been banned for years, there is not one case registered against the violations. People are dying, but no compensation is paid. According to the census, there are still 13,000 people in Kerala involved in this task. But the state is on denial,” Umesh says.
Nearly a year ago, the death of Noushad, an auto rickshaw driver, became news, when he stepped into a manhole to save two migrant workers who fell into the sewer. “We all talked about Noushad, but what about the two manhole workers who fell before him, inhaling the toxic gases that came out of the sewer?” asks Umesh. The film dwells into these incidents, and on the attitude of the people towards this community. “There is a manhole worker called Ayyan played by Ravikumar, an auto rickshaw driver in real life. His family comprises his wife Papathi played by Shailaja, who has been to the Delhi School of Drama, and his teenage daughter Shalini, played by Renu Sounder,” Vidhu says. In the story, Shalini hides her true identity, doesn’t tell her friends she comes from this colony.
“Fearing social alienation... people won’t eat from their houses, won’t touch their things. They are isolated in different ways. Their poverty is not about lack of money, but of dignity.” As she talks, two more of her journo friends walk in. Sofia Bind, who plays a teacher in the film, and I.R. Prasad, who has a small role, too. “Sofia’s character, for instance, stops her daughter from eating at Ayyan’s house,” Vidhu says. Perhaps their sincere efforts will bring a change in attitude. Perhaps not. But Vidhu and her friends would have the satisfaction of having told a story that needed to be told. Manhole may get a release later on. For now it’s going to festivals. It has been selected at the Calcutta International Film Festival....