Children of a lesser god


Courtesy: THe Hindu

A section of the Dalit community continues to do jobs that are sub-human. Madurai filmmaker R.P. Amudhan captures its experiences with all the repugnant details

INSPIRED Amudhan got into documentary making after watching films by Anand Patwardhan, K.P. Sasi, Challam Bennurkar, Deepa Dhanraj and others PHOTO: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

 Films can bring about mobilisations on a range of social and political issues and the mobilisations can give effect to policy changes that could help create better living conditions. In certain other cases, films could help in getting civil society or the State to recognise that certain livelihoods are sub-human and need to be abolished in which case film would have made a contribution to a dignified public life. R.P. Amudhan’s films head in this direction. They are so graphic in the way they address issues that there is not much left to ask after viewing. Amudhan, a documentary filmmaker from Madurai, screened three films here at a programme organised by Pedestrian Pictures last week.

The films screened were Shit, Vande Matarama Shit Version and Notes From The Crematorium. The titles themselves are graphic and so are the films. The first two are about manual scavenging, most of us would not know is still an official job in 21st century India, and the third is about running a manual crematorium. Shit captures manual scavenging through the experience of Madurai Municipal Corporation worker Mariammal. The camera literally follows her on her work early morning. Mariammal has to clean a whole road of shit. She puts powder on it for it to dry, scrapes it using boards, fills it in a bucket and carries it on her head to deposit it in a van. Mariammal cleans shit barefoot because it is difficult to wash her slippers later. She gets Rs. 3,000 per month as salary for this work. “I do this work with a lot of frustration. It is only because I don’t get as much money with other work,” Mariammal states. Even a “job” like this is coveted and she, like many others will not easily budge until there’s another dignified job.

The film resulted in three things: the commissioner of Madurai Municipal Corporation did not get a promotion; the film has been taken up in political campaigns against manual scavenging by the political party Adi Tamila Pervai all over Tamil Nadu; municipal authorities helped Mariammal not by offering alternative employment but by employing two more people to clear the waste!

The second film Vande Mataram — A Shit Version is a five-minute rendering of A.R. Rahman’s well-known number Vande Mataram. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s song is a salutation to the motherland. Amudhan presents the very same song with visuals not of breathtaking landscape, but of a public urinal having to be cleaned by women in Madurai town. The contrast could not have been starker. How can we be cleaning public urinals in the land of “Vande Mataram”?

Living and dead




The third film Notes From the Crematorium captures the experience of people having to make a living out of the dead and how there is reconciliation, although in death, between the rich and poor, high and low caste, intellectual and idiot. The film shows people undertaking to cremate or bury the dead are abused by people bringing the body. And much like manual scavenging, the film shows how even crematoriums are not provided basic facilities. The three films in all capture the experience of a section of the Dalit community that continues to do jobs that are sub-human.

Amudhan’s earlier films too carry the veneer of seriousness. He has made films on a Dalit hamlet in Kodaikanal, students’ protest in Tamil Nadu against privatisation of education and drought deaths in Tanjore. Films, he believes, should be meaningful and honest and serve a purpose and is the motive behind his film-making.

Amudhan got into documentary film-making after watching films by Anand Patwardhan, K.P. Sasi, Challam Bennurkar, Deepa Dhanraj, Amar Kanwar and a few others. “I initially wanted to be in the mainstream media, but I was inspired by the documentaries I saw. I was hooked onto making them.” After completing his post-graduation in communication, Amudhan went to CENDIT in Delhi to learn video skills the voluntary organisation was imparting free of cost. He learnt sound editing, script writing and camera work in two years time. This was around 1995 when he commenced film-making.

In the early stages of his film-making, Amudhan had to record on VHS cameras and edit on VCR’s. “We would use two VCR’s. The cassette would play in one and we would edit on the other using the pause button. We did this for quite some time and learnt the art of making and editing a film with VCR equipment. It would all work out to around Rs. 3,000. Using such equipment is itself a special skill. But now film has gone digital. Filmmaking is now democratised and has become inexpensive. We can now make films with a budget of Rs. 5,000, Rs. 15,000 or Rs. 20,000.”

Amudhan and his friends have an informal group, Marupakkam, to promote videos and documentaries on social issues. And they do this for reasons of conviction as well livelihood. How comfortable is he making a living with films? “It is just about comfortable. We get projects and we work for other filmmakers too. But it also depends on the individual. How he or she would like to live.”


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