In Johnny Walker’s documentary Rest in Manhole, scenes of manual scavengers dancing, singing and conversing are juxtaposed with angry monologues by Ramon Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson.
“Most documentaries that deal with manual scavenging in the country show these scavengers cleaning shit in sewers and gutters,” Walker said. “But these people too have families and relationships. Everybody knows what is going on with them, but not their human side. I was always curious to know about their life and wanted to capture that on film.”
Walker was forced to resort to crowd-funding after the initial producers backed out due to creative differences. “I don’t know how I am going to pull it off,” he said. “I am trying my best. Even if I don’t meet the targets with the backers, I will finish the film.”
Walker was previously employed with a YouTube channel. He was drawn to make a documentary on the subject after he watched Chaitanya Tamhane’s acclaimed movie Court (2014). In Court, a folk singer is falsely accused of instigating a sewer worker to commit suicide.
“This subject was in the back of my head since my younger days in my town Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, where manual scavenging was a regular practice,” Walker said. “And like any other regular guy I did not really care to think about it twice. But when I watched Court, my mindset changed. A lot of us think the film is about the court and its proceedings. But I saw the film as a story about the court trying to manipulate the manual scavenger, who died.”
Walker moved from Mumbai to Delhi in 2016 to follow the work of Bezwada Wilson and his team. Rest In Manhole was shot over a year and a half. The documentary includes the stories of Wilson and the scavengers he often helps. “When I started making the film, I thought it would solely explore Bezwada and his work,” Walker explained. “But later on the film came to trace his team, the manual scavengers in and around the country in states like Punjab and UP.”
Interviews with Wilson mingle with observational footage. “In most documentaries you feel the presence of the camera and the director,” Walker said. “I did not want to do that. I was just recording whatever the subjects were doing. Incidentally, Bezwada won the Magsasay award a few months into shooting and a lot of journalists approached him and conducted interviews, with questions I wanted to ask.”