INTERVIEW

Malayalam film ‘Manhole’ is about an inhuman practice that needs to be flushed away

Vidhu Vincent’s feature debut, about manual scavenging, is being screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

She grew up right next to the community. She had watched men go down manholes and risk their lives to clean somebody else’s refuse. She had heard stories of those who died on the job. She knew their wives, who came over to the locality as maids, cleaned dishes and scrubbed their closets and bathrooms. Vidhu Vincent had always been tormented by the plight of the Chakiliyar community, which belongs to the Arunthathiyar caste and had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala in the 1920s, when dry toilets were still in use. Their profession and the indignity that came with it, which was handed down generation after another, has inspired her debut feature Manhole.

The story of a community forced into manual scavenging because of caste is told through a twelfth-standard girl. The film will be screened in the competition section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 9-16) in Thiruvananthapuram.

There are still reportedly thousands of scavengers in Kerala despite an official ban. As a visual media journalist, Vincent had reported on the issue on numerous occasions. When the opportunity arose, she made a documentary, called Vrithiyude Jaathi (Caste of Cleanliness) for the news channel Media One. “A two-minute bite wouldn’t do justice to this issue, and I went in depth, heard their plight and followed up on these stories, but I still felt I had more to do because a documentary is restrictive,” Vincent told Scroll.in. “The funds are low, the timespan is less, the reach and the audience is sparse, it was difficult for me to take a political stand in it.”

Some stories need to be retold, Vincent decided, when she sat down for a cup of tea with Umesh Omanakuttan, a friend and research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “He helped me with the legal aspects and we co-wrote the script,” Vince t said. “The first half is a social drama and the second half is a courtroom drama.”

Self-funded, with an unconventional cast

The script was completed in July 2016, but then came the challenge of finding a producer and convincing actors. “We couldn’t dream of sourcing mainstream actors,” Vincent said. “We didn’t try to either. We instead roped in theatre artists, serial actors and whoever stood with us for the cause.”

Vincent was particular about telling Manhole from a woman’s perspective – how alienated a young girl from that society feels and how she tries to fake a different identity because poverty is not only measured in terms of lack of money but also in the lack of respect and dignity.

Ravi Kumar, a rickshaw driver, plays Ayyah, the girl’s father. “It was extremely important for me to have people from the locality in the film,” Vincent said. “A handful of the people living there have donned various small and big roles, and Sundar Raj, who is from the Thotti colony, too was my script consultant because even their dialect is different.”

When Vincent found it difficult to rustle up funds, her father stepped in and made the initial investment. Friends and family members chipped in too. The film was shot in 20 days on a shoestring budget. Vincent has many people to thank, especially Gauridasan, the bureau chief of the Hindu newspaper in Thiruvananthapuram. “He plays an important role in the film and has been a mentor in several ways,” Vincent said.

Manhole’s premiere at IFFK is a special occasion for Vincent. When the international film festival first began in 1998, Vincent was a student at the Centre for Development of Image Technology, where she learnt filmmaking and visual communication. Ever since, she hasn’t missed a single edition of the festival. In 2015, she was there with a media pass, flitting from one theatre to another, covering the open forums, doing interviews and reporting for Media One. Here she is now, the first woman from Kerala to make it to the IFFK’s competition section.

“It makes me both happy and sad at the same time,” Vincent said. “Happy because I got to make a mark and sad because it shows the lack of women in the film industry, especially on the technical side. When I made Manhole, I tried to bring as many female technicians as possible.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.