25 year old Divya Bharathi's Kakkoos is a searing documentary on the lives of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu.
In the beginning, you'll find yourself wishing for a stronger stomach to handle the visuals her unforgiving camera throws at you - toilets overflowing with feces, humans collecting feces with their bare hands, humans plunging their hands into drains and more - but as the film progresses, the disgust is no longer to do with what's being shown on screen.
Instead, the disgust turns towards yourself and the apathy that you, along with the rest of society, have shown this issue all along. For far too long.
Divya is from Arupukkottai in Virudhunagar district of Tamil Nadu. Her father worked in a cotton mill in the area and she grew up in the workers’ colony. Divya recollects the power that the owner held over his employees and the way his word was held as law.
It was perhaps this first-hand experience of capitalistic exploitation that compelled her to join the CPI (ML) when she was merely in Class XI.
"I had the opportunity to watch alternative cinema even as a child because of this," Divya recollects. "And so, I fell in love with filmmaking. I joined the Visual Communications course at the American College (Madurai) in 2008. But there was a student protest there which I led. I was thrown out of the college because of my involvement."
Wondering what to do next, Divya joined the Madurai Law College but was later transferred to the law college in Chennai because of her activism.
"My parents were not into any of this. If they even prayed at Melmaruvathur and wore the red dress (as is the tradition), they'd be beaten up. They were very far from thinking about communism or anything else. It was my teachers at school who introduced me to Periyar, Ambedkar and different kinds of books when I was in Class 8 or so," Divya explains, tracing the origin of her involvement in politics.
However, even though Divya was part of several protests as a member of the CPI (ML), she says there was never a representation made for the manual scavenging community.
Through all the 7-8 years of activism, when she'd encountered all kinds of social issues, manual scavenging was invisible to not just the party she worked for but to several other social organisations too.
"I never thought about them at all," Divya admits. "They used to take garbage from my house, which had my used sanitary napkins and so on. I never spared a thought for them."
But one incident changed all this. In October 2015, two workers employed as manual scavengers died in Madurai after inhaling poisonous gas from a septic tank. Divya was part of the 3 day protest which followed this incident.
Image courtesy: Divya Bharathi
It was in these days that she discovered the living hell in which lakhs of people live in the country, let down by society, the government, and the courts.
"One of the labourers who died was Muniyandi. The grief-stricken cries of his wife, Mahalakshmi, who is the same age as I am, haunted me," says Divya, her voice breaking even now.
There were no arrests made in this case. Not even an FIR was filed, says Divya.
The hospital refused to keep the bodies in the freezer for three days.
"They just said they can't open the freezer. The smell emanating from the bodies was unbearable. All the activists moved away. But Mahalakshmi...she didn't care...she ran and fell on Muniyandi's body, crying. I felt as if someone had slapped me with a chappal. I wanted to do something about this," shares Divya.
She began reading more about the issue and this made her aware of the numerous manual scavenging deaths taking place in the state.
"There were at least ten such deaths that I came to know of. I decided to do a film focused on their families. That's how I started. I didn't actually think of looking at manual scavenging as a job and what it entails. I was looking at the families as victims," she explains.
But when Divya started work, she realised that if she didn't look at manual scavenging and the politics involved in it, there was little use in documenting the deaths alone.
Divya and her partner Gopalakrishnan with whom she runs a small studio (she has been debarred from practising as an advocate because of the cases filed against her) traveled across 25 districts in Tamil Nadu, documenting the lives of the manual scavenging community. Palani Kumar, a camera person, joined the team and took over the filming.
"I have to credit Kumar for the great work that he did," says Divya. "You can't shoot these scenes standing. If you want to shoot people cleaning feces, you have to be ready to sit on that very floor and do it. You can't plan how to shoot this...you can't set up a tripod, mic etc. It has to be done on the go, as they are working."
Divya also mentions how they were stopped from shooting many a time by higher authorities who'd grab their camera and prevent the filming from happening.
"Winning the trust of the workers was very important. If we went to them with the camera right away, they'd clam up. So I'd start the conversation and signal to Kumar to start filming once they were comfortable," Divya explains.
The filming happened for nearly a year, starting from February 2016 and ending in January 2017. The footage they'd captured was over 90 hours long.
"It was very difficult for me to decide what to keep and what to chop. We'd captured so many things. I finally edited it down to 5 hours. After that, Pagalavan, a senior film editor, did the next edit and brought it down to under 2 hours," she says.
The title Kakkoos comes from an incident which happened during the filming.
"There was a manual scavenging death which took place in Ramanathapuram. There were four children in the family, including a pair of twins. I saw only one of the twins first and she told me that her name was Muniswari. I went to shoot the toilet and came back...I saw a child I thought was Muniswari and called her by name," Divya says.
The child corrected her and told her that she was not Muniswari and that she was her twin.
"I asked her what her name was and she promptly told me that it was 'Kakkoos'," Divya recalls. "You see, that's how they were called in the area and the child had internalised this to the extent that she called herself by that name."
The moment stayed with Divya and became the title of her film.
Image courtesy: Divya Bharathi; From the first screening of 'Kakkoos' in Chennai.
Kakkoos documents the connivance of the authorities and legal bodies to dehumanise manual scavengers and to normalise their exploitation.
Scenes from Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign are juxtaposed to the on ground reality, exposing the hollowness of such schemes in scathing detail.
Divya doesn't hesitate to point a finger at leaders of dalit organisations who partake in this inhuman act either and ask for a "commission" from the compensation money that reaches a family that has suffered a loss after much delay and struggles.
Neither does the film excuse left wing organisations who have their share of caste politics.
Cleaning feces and dangerous medical waste, removing maggot-ridden corpses with little to no sanitation gear - these images from Divya's film are from the 21st century, make no mistake.
And although the urban elite continues to live in a bubble where caste oppression is a thing of the past, Kakkoos is unflinching in its portrayal of how people who've been engaged in this profession through generations are never allowed to step out of it. Whether that's in rural India or the fancy cities.
The narrative also looks at dual oppression, focusing on female labourers who're often pushed into doing the worst of the job and face sexual exploitation from higher authorities, too. Many of these women, the film says, have to undergo hysterectomies because of the heavy weights that they have to lift. The plight of migrant manual scavengers (mostly from Andhra and Maharashtra) in Tamil Nadu finds its way into the film as well.
With first person accounts from manual scavengers and their families interspersed with data shared by activists (including Bezwada Wilson), Kakkoos is an education on the way our society operates, seen from its darkest recesses.
At many points in this film, you might be tempted to shut your eyes, unable to withstand the horror of what you see. But make sure you don't do that - this is the world we live in and the least we can do is to stop pretending that our fellow human beings are invisible. Staple your eyes open if you must...but watch.
'Kakkoos' will be out on DVD later this week. Divya and her team hope to screen the film across the country. Watch the trailer below: