In Vinod Kamble’s ‘Kastoori’, A Dalit Boy Yearns To Free Himself Of The Smells That Cling To Him

At the Dharamsala International Film Festival, a powerful drama about a boy who cleans toilets and performs post-mortems in order to pay for school.
In Vinod Kamble’s ‘Kastoori’, A Dalit Boy Yearns To Free Himself Of The Smells That Cling To Him

Vinod Kamble's Kastoori (Marathi) opens with an Indian-style toilet filled with shit. The screening at the Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF) was attended by a number of school students, and after the film ended, one of them stood up and asked the director why he gave us that image — and by extension, why he gave us the visual that comes later, of an almost-overflowing toilet being unclogged by hand. Vinod said, "In real life, we go to the toilet and don't think about what happens after we leave. If this shot makes you uncomfortable, then my motive is accomplished." Adding to the discomfort is the sight of the person cleaning the toilet: a Class VIII student named Gopi (Samarth Sonawane).

In order to afford school, Gopi cleans toilets. He helps a slightly older relative who descends into manholes to clean them. He also earns money by burying unclaimed bodies and by doing post-mortems: the Government Hospital's doctor teaches him how to wield a scalpel and slice open a body and how to crack open the skull. All of this ensures that there's always a smell about Gopi: the smell of filth, the smell of death. His classmates — many of them from dominant castes and classes, though the uniforms they wear do not instantly slot them as such — make faces and cover their noses when Gopi passes by. He keeps applying various scents on his self, but nothing seems to help.

A still from <em>Kastoori</em>
A still from Kastoori

One day, during a religious discourse, he hears about a god who rose from the garbage smelling like musk (kastoori), and he becomes obsessed with the scent. He thinks it will cleanse him — not just mask the immediate odours that waft off his body, but somehow "purify" him as well. He wants it at all cost. So the musk becomes a metaphor, the olfactory equivalent of the Abirami character in Guna. In that Tamil film, the dark-skinned protagonist was so disgusted by his milieu (his mother runs a brothel), that he became obsessed with marrying a "goddess" who would "cleanse" him. I was also reminded of Kaaka Muttai, where the object of obsession was pizza.

The setup is solid, and the characters — even with the most minimal lines — come alive in unexpected ways. You'd think Gopi's enemies would be from the outside, but here's his own mother berating him for being absent during a post-mortem. "If you don't do it, you think the doctor will?" Right or wrong is less important to her than the urgent fact that the family needs money, and her drunk husband cannot be depended on. The search for the musk goes on a bit too long — but even these passages are never dull, because Gopi has a partner-in-crime, his best friend Adim (Shravan Upalakar), the son of a butcher. The boys are wonderful. There's genuine warmth every time they show up on screen.

A question, now: Is the mere presence of children in a film reason enough to play it in the Children's Section of a film festival? During the post-screening Q and A, a boy referred to a character as "that ugly man". This is how… unexposed these kids are. But Monica Wahi, the film programmer who took Kastoori to DIFF, said, "I don't look at children as another species. They are individuals who are growing, just like we are adults who are growing. I want to programme films that will provoke youngsters to look within and look at the world around them, at things they possibly encounter but never think about." Sometime ago, Monica programmed Nagraj Manjule's Fandry, another film that has a child in it but isn't easily characterised as a "Children's Film". Monica said that most of the children at these festivals come from a privileged background, and they see Dalits mostly in the context of reservations, which results in a certain amount of antipathy. "But when they see what a child in that position goes through, when they see the bullying he faces, they are able to put a face on the person at the receiving end of this antipathy. This changes how they look at things."

A still from <em>Kastoori, </em>starring Samarth Sonawane as Gopi
A still from Kastoori, starring Samarth Sonawane as Gopi

Just seeing Gopi handle a corpse that has been dug out by dogs is likely to make an indelible impact on young minds. It's a reminder of privilege: the privilege that you are able to go to school without worrying about the costs involved, or (in my case) even the privilege that you can be invited to a film festival and watch these films about people to whom films themselves may be a luxury. The most curious statement during the Q and A came from the director, when he said, "I don't see this as a Dalit story. It's about all the children who are denied an education." I found the statement a little confusing. Was he saying that Gopi just happened to be a Dalit boy, and that a similar story could have been told with any impoverished child at the film's centre?

Like Gopi, Vinod Kamble is from the city of Barshi in Solapur, Maharashtra. He said he didn't want to use the word "Dalit" to categorise either the film or its young protagonist, because "uska dhabba lag jayega". (It will get branded as such.) "Gopi could be the son of a farmer, or a tea seller," he said, when we sat down for a chat a day after the screening." The family exists below the poverty line, so the story is also that of economic circumstances, rather than just caste."

Vinod's grandfather was a sweeper. His father still sweeps the streets. "We are economically backward, so we do the work that is given to us," he said. When he was in school, a Government school, his teacher would ask him to clean the gutters. (In Kastoori, Gopi cleans toilets in a hospital.) Vinod thought there was nothing wrong with this, because it was "school ka kaam" (work for the school). Much later, he realised he was asked to do this job because of his background, because his teacher knew his father was a sweeper. Vinod ended up a civil engineer.

The idea for Kastoori came from an article in Sakal, the Marathi newspaper, about a boy who has been doing post-mortems from the time he was in Class VIII. Now, at 25, he has performed more than 5,000 such procedures. "I saw my story in this and I wrote Post Mortem," Vinod said. That was a short film, and it was screened at the short film corner in the Cannes Film Festival. When Post Mortem was screened in Pune, it led to interest from someone connected to his producers, and Vinod told them that he had a full-fledged script for a feature. Eight women have come together to produce Kastoori, under the banner Insight Films. This is their first production. Vinod said, "They did not ask me to change one line or remove one visual. It's a huge thing for an independent filmmaker to have this freedom."

The censors, too, did not ask him to remove a thing, not even the word 'bhangi', which refers to the Dalit sub-caste Gopi belongs to, which cleans toilets ("tatti uthaati hai"). The word has become a racial slur, like "nigger" — and in some circles, it is bandied about casually in conversations the way you'd use, say, "bastard". Vinod was surprised that the word was used in the trailer of Article 15, though it wasn't there in the final film. "I liked Article 15 a lot," he said. "It gave me a lot of confidence that we can talk about these things."

When Vinod saw films such as Fandry and Gangs of Wasseypur, he felt he, too, had a similar story to tell. Kastoori had its world premiere at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star. This, at Dharamsala, is the film's second screening, and it will next go to Delhi, for the Smile International Film Festival for Children and Youth. Vinod feels having a young protagonist makes the film more palatable for the audience. "They see these innocent children on screen and they feel more sympathetic, because they see their children's faces in these characters."

But are festival screenings enough? Take literature festivals. There are panels about gender and patriarchy and social equality, but the audience — typically liberal, typically upper-class — is already on the side of the speakers. The sessions end up preaching to the choir, like the op-eds in English newspapers that are in sync with the readers' views. Would these discussions be more useful if they took place outside, in places where these issues were actually happening?

Also, consider this. The audience sees these films and… then what? If the issue is something instantaneous, like a flood or an earthquake, some of us volunteer for relief work, and some of us make monetary (or other) donations to organisations that do this relief work. But what does one do with something like caste? How do the conversations that happen after the screenings of films like Kastoori trickle out into the real world?

Tamil cinema began to address this issue with the Pa Ranjith films, which aggressively "mainstreamed" cinema with Dalit protagonists. Though it's probably too soon to say whether these films have made a difference at the grassroots level, there is no denying that Ranjith has emboldened other filmmakers to talk about things they may have hesitated to talk about earlier. Vinod said he was very impressed by Kaala and Kabali. He loved the glamourised treatment of these films ("Glamourise karke casteism samjhaya hai") and how they used a star to speak about Ambedkar's ideas. He also spoke about Manhole, Vidhu Vincent's 2016 Malayalam film about the daughter of a manual scavenger.

Vinod wants Kastoori to get a pan-India release. "The people who do these things, the people who suffer these things — I have made the film for both of them. I believe they both should talk. Whether people like my film or not, these discussions should happen. That is the only solution." He sounds exactly like Mari Selvaraj, whose Pariyerum Perumal he hasn't yet seen. That film has one of my favourite scenes of all time. When the Dalit protagonist tells his classmate, Jo, about his journey to get into law college, she is astonished by how many stories this journey has. She, on the other hand, joined college without thinking, or maybe because her father told her to. Like Jo, many of us lead privileged lives on a treadmill, doing things by default, because "it is what is done".

Films like Kastoori show the struggle others have to face. "Children are the future," Vinod said. "Whether due to caste or due to economic circumstances, they should understand how easy their life is, and how easily they get things. They should go back home or to their society and question things." That is why he had that first shot. "Aapki tatti hai aur yeh saaf kar rahaa hai." (It's your shit and this boy is cleaning it up.) This isn't school. This isn't a set of abstract concepts about the caste system to be mugged up for a half-yearly exam. This is a toilet filled with shit, and the visual really tells you what the caste system is all about. "The camera treatment is deliberately subjective," Vinod said. It isn't, for instance, about Gopi opening the door of the toilet and reacting to what he sees. It's about what the audience sees. "I wanted to make them think about what they leave behind."

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