**t!’ is hardly what a debutant filmmaker would want to be told about her film. But that’s all that Divya Bharathi, director of the hard-hitting documentary, Kakkoos, wants her audience to take away from the film.
The visuals of Kakkoos, meaning toilet, are stabbing – septic tanks, overflowing toilets, clogged sewers, men and women clearing human faeces with their bare hands, standing in drains to relieve the drains of their baggage, sweeping away vomit, and using two sticks to remove bloodied sanitary napkins, among others. ‘If talking about human faeces makes you uncomfortable, then the fact that it’s still being cleaned by another human being should make you squirm’, is the point Kakkoos drives home. “They are referred to as sanitation workers or conservancy workers.
Even ‘manual scavenger’ doesn’t do justice to what these people have to do,” says Divya, who grew up in Aruppukottai, Virudhunagar district, in a colony of cotton mill workers. It was the exploitative environment that shaped her politics.
At 16, she joined the CPI (ML). Through her brief stint as a Vis-Comm student, and the years at Law College, Divya was actively involved in people’s struggles. When she heard about the death of manual scavengers Muniyandi and Viswanathan in Madurai in October 2015, she went there with her peers. “Seeing Muniyandi’s wife Muthulakshmi cry for three days till we were allowed to take his body felt like a slap on my face,” recalls Divya.
“As a law student, I was ashamed that I knew nothing about the laws on manual scavenging. How many of us know that it was banned in 1993, but continues with impunity till date?” Divya, who was running a small studio for sustenance and waited to be enrolled in the Bar, dug up her long-buried dream of being a filmmaker and started work on Kakkoos.
“I knew the story had to be told through a visual medium — no one reads long texts anymore, and I knew how not to tell it from all the documentaries I have seen,” she explains. With a broken tripod that needed a folded piece of paper to make it stand upright, a loaned camera, and a borrowed mic she set off with her small, dedicated team.
“My partner had to stay back, as at least one person needed to pay the rent. There were days we didn’t eat because we had no money. It was friends and unknown Facebook donors who made this happen,” she avers.
The film addresses a whole range of issues and also establishes that manual scavenging is really about caste discrimination. Dalits are the only caste for the job, and they are underpaid, always as proxy workers with no records to show for their employment. The hazardous nature of the job, where they come into direct contact with faeces, biomedical waste and sewers everyday doesn’t alarm the rest of society. If they die on the job choking in septic tanks, the fight for compensation could very well take another lifetime.
Another question the film answers is the alternative employment. When children of manual scavengers face discrimination in school, they drop out. with no education and only a caste identity, they too eventually turn to Kakkoos. Supervisors, state agencies, and law enforcers are all to blame, and worse is that they all have a role in keeping manual scavenging alive.
An internet search will show the number of persons whose cases have not been filed, much less are those that have been heard in court, awaiting a verdict or receiving compensations. “Dry and wet toilets make no difference, so is the case with the urban and the rural. Most of the shots were taken in Tiruchy, Coimbatore, Madurai, and Chennai, not in rural parts are some may believe,” Divya insists.
The film takes a feminist lens, while talking about menstrual waste, the lack of laws to protect women scavengers, and the double burden of being a dalit woman. A shocking number of women have urinary and uterine problems; what can be said of malnourished children?
Kakkoos points a daring finger at Left and dalit organisations, activists and NGOs. It clearly shows the ‘commission’ from death compensations that’s pocketed by Dalit organisations. “NGOs are a real stumbling block; and please take the caste politics out of this equation,” says a person in the film. Divya agrees, “The organisations further exploit the workers. And the life would’ve been snubbed out of my fi lm had I not talked about it.”
Drawing a reference from Marxist ideology, Divya believes that technology to replace humans in cleaning feaces will happen when people all of castes have to clean it. Unless that happens, Dalits will be exploited for their caste status and cheap labour.
“In other countries, if humans have to clean sewers they are sent in layers of safety gear. Here, we strip them down to the bare minimum and demand that they go in.” she rues. Divya plans to put together youth teams across the state soon. “What we need is for people to keep fighting! A simple photo goes a long way, and that kind of intervention will eventually stop the violation of a human life. Don’t walk away until then,” she says. Yes, don’t walk away from Kakkoos. It’s worth it!