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.”