A shot of a scholarly-looking, older Indian man pushing the flush on a toy toilet isn’t exactly the introduction you’d expect to a documentary about the plight of Delhi’s ‘untouchable’ population. But as the crew from US-based production company GLP films discovered, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak – founder of Delhi’s irreverent toilet museum – has developed his interest in all things latrine over many years.
Pathak, 72, and the work of the Sulabh Foundation that he created over forty years ago, are the subject of the documentary A Toilet Fascination Leads To Social Change, a new short created in partnership with National Geographic. The film tells the story of the quietly determined doctor and his two central missions: to revolutionise the sanitation system in India, and to help some of the country’s most vulnerable people. These goals are inextricably linked.
Clearing the human waste produced by India’s 1.2 billion people is a job that has traditionally fallen to members of one of the lowest and most persecuted castes – the Balmiki. Done the old-fashioned way, “manual scavenging” involves crawling into latrines and collecting excrement by hand before carrying it away on the head in an (often leaking) basket for disposal.
The Sulabh Foundation, I discover, has made outstanding inroads into abolishing this status quo. They’ve come up with a viable alternative to traditional brick latrines, while providing vital retraining programmes for the people who had been forced to clean them. Sulabh has pioneered the design of a cost-effective, flushable lavatory that eliminates the need for such exhausting and hazardous labour. Over 55 million toilets based on this model have been installed nationally, and 640 towns are now completely “scavenger-free”.
So how did the team from GLP come upon such an extraordinary character? “We uncovered the story of the toilet museum first,” Jenny Ersbak, the company’s production manager, tells me. “It was known as one of those kooky, must-see attractions in Delhi. From there, the story of the Sulabh organisation came to light. We learned more about its creation and its purpose; then we were introduced to Dr. Pathak and learnt of his mission to improve sanitation across India.”
Rob Holmes, the film’s director, had visited India a number of times, but for the rest of the crew it was quite a culture shock. “The moments that I found to be the most memorable were the ones that were particularly moving,” says Ersbak. “Visiting the slum in Delhi – for a film crew from the West, the sight of that much poverty is really troubling. Being face to face with the issues you came to document is such an eye opener. You see people defecating on the streets and you think, ‘OK, this is real’.”
I wonder about the difficulties of filming in such an environment. “I think the biggest challenge was being able to capture those raw moments without being disrespectful to the people we were filming. It’s something that all filmmakers struggle with,” Ersbak tells me. “When you capture emotion on film, it can really breath life into a piece, but at what cost?”
The film was produced as a piece of bite-sized digital content that would tell a powerful, contemporary story within the space of a few minutes. Ersbak is enthusiastic about the potential influence this kind of documentary can have, particularly because of the demographic it’s likely to appeal to. “It’s the younger viewers, the millennials,” she says. “They’re the first generation to age in the digital world, so we hope that our films are going to reach people that we can truly inspire to bring about change.”