A short film for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Background:

In March 2014, India held the 2nd Reinvent the Toilet Fair, an exhibition organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to showcase designs of waterless toilets funded through its grants. 

In the run up to the event, the Foundation commissioned Mandolin Media to highlight an example of innovation and entrepreneurship in India’s sanitation sector. In addition to the showcasing the toilet designs of the future, the Foundation sought to document a sanitation initiative that is changing people’s lives now.

Step forward the ‘Poop Guy’, a 37-year-old Indian, who by birth, upbringing and education was not meant to run a toilet business. Swapnil Chaturvedi was born into the elite Brahmin caste and had a privileged education that culminated at Northwestern University in Chicago. 

Yet Mr Chaturvedi proudly calls himself Chief Toilet Cleaner at Samagra Waste Management, the company he runs in the Indian city of Pune with his wife and small team of staff. His mission is to provide ‘awesome toilet services’ for the urban poor - toilets that are clean, properly lit, well-ventilated, regularly maintained and fitted with plumbing and wash basins. To generate revenue, Samagra charges toilet users INR50 per family per month (US$0.8) and allows subscribers to earn vouchers that can be exchanged for locally-made goods, from which Samagra takes a small margin.

Mandolin was tasked with producing a short film that covered Samagra’s business model and the improvements it makes to state-run toilet blocks. The key aim of the film, however, was to convey Mr Chaturvedi’s underlying desire to improve facilities for female resident’s of India’s slums. Many face the dire choice between using a filthy public toilet or relieving themselves in the open - a practice that is hugely undignifying for young women.

Sitting with his six-year-old daughter Urvi outside a Samagra toilet block, Mr Chaturvedi says: “If someone asks me why I started this business, there is only one reason - for women’s dignity. And that goes back to me being the father of a girl child. I imagine ‘what if she was living here?’ I want to ensure women and girls here have the kind of service I would expect her to have.”

You can contribute to help empower the Urban Poor in Pune, India, by donating to this project here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/samagra-awesome-sanitation-services-for-the-urban-poor

The Shoot: 

The three-day shoot took Mandolin to multiple Samagra toilet blocks throughout the slum areas of Pune. 

Each location was not without its challenges - incessant car honking, crowds of people gathering every time the team pulled out a camera, children darting about on rooftops to cast shadows on our interview subjects - even the slum drunkard threatening to throw bricks at us unless we gave him money.

But thanks to Mr Chaturvedi and his Samagra colleagues the team captured fantastic footage of daily life in the slum and were introduced to many young women whose lives have improved through the provision of clean toilets.  

Our favourite part of the shoot was following Mr Chaturvedi through the narrow alleys of a Pune slum as he greeted children and families. Each seemed to have a story - a young girl who inspired Samagra to offer bank account services to its subscribers, a family who were the first users of a Samagra toilet, a husband and wife who lived beyond walking distance of the main Samagra toilet block so commissioned Samagra to attach a single toilet cubicle to their house.

One of the most complex tasks was to portray the practice of open defecation and its impact on hygiene within the slum, but without actually showing open defecation. The team chose to focus on the use of water in the slum - for washing, drinking, cleaning - as Mr Chaturvedi explained that contamination of water sources due to open defecation causes thousands of fatal diarrhoea cases among children.  

The overriding memory of the project was one of admiration for Mr Chaturvedi - a man who brought his family to India from a comfortable life in the US and defied the wishes of his father to start a business in sanitation. His sole aim is to bring dignity to people as they perform our most natural daily act - one not all of us are able to do in clean and comfortable surroundings.  

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The Team:

Paul James Driscoll: Cinematography - Photography - Post Production
Robert Ditcham: Photography - Interviews - Audio - Post Production

Our Equipment:

- Canon 5D MkIII camera x 2
- Manfrotto tripod and monopod
- Kessler slider
- Light reflector
- Sigma 85mm lens
- Canon 50mm lens
- Sigma 28mm lens
- Zoom H6 voice recorder
- Sennheiser shotgun mic and wireless mic

Post Production

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6
Soundtrack Pro