Writer: Maneesh Kumar
Director: Anupam Khanna Baswal
One of the outcomes of the pandemic was a greater appreciation for the forgotten and unappreciated workers in society – the street cleaners, bus drivers and postmen that kept things running as the rest of us were confined to our homes. Social justice and respect for manual scavengers is the subject of Maneesh Kumar and Anupam Khanna Baswal’s pseudo-documentary, Gutter Boy, showing as part of the UK Asian Film Festival, a political exposé of poverty and family expectations that forces young men to undertake dangerous work in Delhi’s sewers.
Sandeep is desperate to move to the big city and avoid the rural labourer life his father endures, waiting by the train tracks each day in the hope of securing work. With family warnings ringing in his ears, Sandeep achieves his dream with the help of friends, but despite his good schooling the only job on offer is cleaning Delhi’s sewers. With no other options and a family to support Sandeep has no choice but to lower himself into the city’s drains.
Directed by Anupam Khanna Baswal this 60-minute film is framed as a news report with several minutes at the start dedicated to contextualising the story. From here, the news anchor tasks a junior journalist with developing an investigative report that takes him to protagonist Sandeep. It is a useful frame that emphasises the real-life nature of the story and gives writer Maneesh Kumar an opportunity to include the many facts and perspectives about the impact of poor sanitation and the wider implications of these hidden roles.
The documentary style gives way to a fictional story that uses layers of flashbacks from different periods in the past through which Sandeep tells his story, cutting between his village home life and his gruesome experience of work in the city, with the present-day discussion with the initially judgemental journalist. This approach works effectively even if sometimes the screenplay feels a little earnest and the slightly heightened presentation a tad soap opera-like.
While the scenario is fictionalised, the film openly confronts the dilemma facing the city’s workers and the multiple pressures on Sandeep to become the family breadwinner at whatever cost. This is balanced by a sense of the shame and disgust that Sandeep feels within himself, and this open outrage is something that star Ajeet Kumar convincingly portrays as his character struggles to find coherence between his dreams of metropolitan freedom and the compromised reality he endures instead.
Kumar and Khanna Baswal leave the viewer with nothing but respect and a little sadness for the conditions endured by Delhi’s manual scavengers. A self-funded project by a female first-time filmmaker, Gutter Boy is clearly a labour of love and uses its platform to question a hierarchical system that happily accepts the labour of others but refuses to acknowledge their value.
The UK Asian Film Festival runs nationwide and online from 26 May until 6 June 2021