His long hair tied into a ponytail, dramatic speech and side-splitting humour does not deflect the gravity of issues he deals with. In turn, he ends up communicating powerfully. With a zest to bring the suppressed voices of communities to the mainstream media, he launched a non profit ‘Video Volunteers’ – transforming cameras into tools of liberation.
His famous documentaries ‘India Untouched’ and ‘Lesser Humans’ delve into the historical problem of caste prejudice. Lesser Humans, in particular, deals with the life of shame and indignity led byBhangis – the untouchable Dalits who are traditionally involved in disposal of human-excreta with bare hands; and often called ‘manual scavengers'.
In a free-wheeling conversation with TMJ, documentary film maker and media activist, Stalin K, gives an insight into his works:
Q: How do manual scavengers sense their job? Do they like it or is there a sense of disgust?
A: We are talking about people whose job day in and day out is to handle human excreta. A lot of them get used it. This doesn’t mean they like it. You can’t confuse the two. I grew up in a patriarchal society and have seen male dominance. This doesn’t mean I like it.
Q: But in the documentary, a few manual scavengers at work were seen smiling.
A: When a person slips on a banana peal before 15 others, what does he do? Laugh. It is the animalistic behaviour of guarding whatever remains of your dignity. These are immediate responses and have nothing to do with like and dislike. While filming Lesser Humans, I shot a man wearing yellow shirt, scraping off faeces in a dilapidated toilet using a broken broom. Horrible shot. Before I began shooting, he excused himself for five minutes and changed into a new shirt. Then said, “Now shoot.” I shot that with tears flowing from my eyes; not because he was involved in heinous work but because it pained to see how far human beings can go to assert their dignity. He was surely working out of no choice but had the choice to wear the shirt he liked. Dignity is a huge thing.
Q: Considering they are used to it, is it possible to liberate them? Or motivate them to give up the job?
A: Yes, they are willing to do that. They want to liberate themselves of the job but the community has hardly any financial alternative. If they give up manual scavenging, they would still remain a Bhangi. If they are employed elsewhere, they would still remain a bhangi. The caste tag will never go. Primarily their job needs to be addressed. It is so dirty, so unhealthy and undignified. But that is not the end of the battle. The end of the battle would be total wiping out of caste system. How ridiculous it is for some of us to believe that we were born in a caste higher than others and are therefore better.
Q: Where does the process of liberation or eradication stand?
A: Not at a very bad stage. If you look at the movements across the country: the environment movement, the gender movement and the like – the caste (anti-caste) movement is right above all. The assertion of all those who have been suffering the ill-effects of caste system is extremely high now. I have seen the change from the time I made Lesser Humans in 1997 to the time I made India Untouched in 2007. In a decade there has been a mass difference in the way Dalit students are talking about their own situation. Today they are far more engaged; far more intellectual and they know their things. You cannot take them for granted anymore.
Q: Does the government reciprocate this change?
A: The government does its tokenistic things because it is bound by the Constitution to provide reservations to Dalits. The problem of being a Dalit in this country is not financial. It is more about social acceptance and dignity. Reservation is also a populist political tool.
Q: But is it a liberation tool?
A: Yes, of course. You have to give the devil its due. You remain in an upper or a lower caste for many generations. If upper, it means, you came into the world with privileges. So you always suffer or benefit historically. Reservation is one way of readjusting that bad vein. You can’t dismantle that.
Q: Can you give instances when the videos made by communities have been effective?
A: We do two kinds of programmes. One, we have a hyper local community media unit. They are very effective because videos are made by the community, for the community and showed back in the community. Actions are taken by the community. It is designed for action. Second, India Unheard, which is for pushing such stories up to the mainstream media. It is not communities changing themselves but authorities correcting something after seeing the videos. A corrupt school teacher was dismissed in Jharkhand; BPL card holders were given cards.
Q: So would it be right to say that your work rejects objectivity?
A: The people who make these videos are poor and we pay them Rs.1300 for every video. The closing piece to the camera has to make personal connections. We are not interested in our correspondents making objective stories. We do not believe in objective journalism. We are saying - give me your subjective point of view. We are actually inverting the whole thing. My point is, let the world listen.
- Garima Goel (First Published in The Manipal Journal)
Three labourers in Mumbai die after inhaling toxic fumes in a septic tank￼
The practice of manual scavenging violates Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the ‘Right to live life with dignity.’
“12 years of reporting on Caste and Untouchability”
“Over the last 12 years, Video Volunteers has produced more than 600 video reports on caste and untouchability, across India.