A New York Times article was the inspiration for National Award-winning director Suman Ghosh to think about a film set in the world of waste collectors. The idea that one man’s trash could be another man’s treasure was the pivotal idea for The Scavenger Of Dreams, a feature film set in Kolkata. It premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea (4-13 October) and is playing at the Mumbai Film Festival this week.
Sudipta Chakraborty (Bariwali) and Shardul Bhardwaj (Eeb Allay Ooo!) play Shona and Birju, a married couple who find useful and fascinating objects in the garbage they collect from affluent homes. They take these back home and regale their daughter with fantastical stories built around these found objects—tales that reflect their hopes of rising out of the squalor and stench. Then, mechanisation threatens Birju’s livelihood.
Ghosh, who lives in Florida, US, blends a docu-drama style with magic realism to tell a largely unscripted story featuring non-actors alongside the professional leads, including garbage collectors and women in the slum where Shona and Birju live. Speaking of his stylistic approach, Ghosh says: “It was very similar to Juris Kursietis’ Oleg (2019) and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), which also had a lot of non-actors and real people of that area interacting with the main cast.”
For the two lead actors, the idea of working on a film that would be largely improvised and set among garbage dumps took some getting used to. “Initially, I was concerned about working in those environments, dealing with garbage and the stench, but then I came to terms with it. The process Suman narrated seemed so interesting, because working with non-actors is fun,” says Chakraborty, who has previously collaborated with Ghosh on The Bose Family (2019) and Searching For Happiness (2021), among others.
Ghosh spent almost two years on research and pre-production. This included meeting the workers and observing waste collectors in Kolkata. “The road where Shona and Birju go to collect the garbage is actually in front of my house in Salt Lake,” says Ghosh. “After I decided to make this film, I became more aware of the waste collectors in front of my house or wherever I went. Production-wise, the initial research was very important. The only real difficulty was when I went to those garbage dumps initially, I couldn’t enter because of the toxic smell. The mountains of trash in the last scene—you cannot imagine the odour over there. But, surprisingly, after a while I adjusted to it.”
As part of his preparation for the role, Bhardwaj spent time with garbage collectors, collecting and sorting through the trash. The actor, who was recently seen in the web series Trial By Fire, found his cues for Birju from Ghosh and Sanjay, the garbage collector he shadowed. “We wanted empathy for Birju, not sympathy, because sympathy would be a patronising position for us to take. Sanjay was nice enough to teach me the tricks of how to collect garbage and segregate in the mornings. He also got me into the group of those 20-25 men at that dumpyard. Sanjay owns his space, has the kind of confidence which says, ‘I know the system is rigged but I am not helpless.’”
Birju’s resistance to a motorised vehicle replacing his handcart spotlights the impact of mechanisation on the low-wage worker. Ghosh, who is a professor of economics in the US, says: “The point of my film is: Are we taking enough time to retool and retrain people who have worked in a certain way? I think the government should be proactive in retraining so that they are better equipped to face the modernised world.”
Shona takes care of the home and their daughter but she also joins Birju on the waste-collecting rounds. Here is a character who has a voice in her marriage, something Chakraborty appreciated. “Shona supports Birju and also takes care of their daughter. She doesn’t give in to whatever her husband wants. There’s a scene where the job is in jeopardy and Birju asks her why she doesn’t contribute by working. She retaliates saying I never said I wouldn’t work. That is not shown in a negative way. Shona is the happiness quotient in the relationship and the family, the way she crafts those dreamy stories for the child. She has come to terms with the fact that they are poor but she doesn’t believe they are helpless. I found Shona to be quite a confident and hopeful character.”
In a crucial scene towards the end of the film, Birju loses his temper. Bhardwaj says that eruption was triggered by a revelation during the preceding conversation between the garbage collectors who take time out to relax under a bridge beside the dump. “In my short career, I am beginning to understand that whether it’s characters or stories, you need to sculpt those. So, the sculpture’s basic underpinnings were always there. Everything that we would hear was real and happening in that moment. In fact, that moment when Sanjay says he’s not drinking that day because his elder brother passed away last night, it happened. I got that information right there in that scene. And I had spent some time with Sanjay so the enormity of the situation, which they still live in, was a lot to take in. I can never claim to even understand the enormity of the tragedy that that life is. But a lot of Birju’s reaction and that anger was almost like an eruption after spending a month with these absolutely wonderful people.”
Ghosh has always been realistic about the subject’s marketability. “I didn’t make The Scavenger Of Dreams thinking about its future and I told these actors as much. I didn’t know whether we would even complete the film. My previous work includes esoteric films such as Peace Haven (2016) and others which have luckily found a place on Netflix and Amazon Prime. So I’m just hoping for something like that for this film. Of course, I want people to see it.”
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She posts @Udita J.