‘Rishkawala’, or the importance of the unnoticed

An unlikely Dutch-Bengal cooperation changes the way youngsters perceive people of the lowest caste in Bangladesh. An online television show already reached tens of thousands of people. A lot of them support the people that suffer the most from Covid 19.

Looking back it is not exactly clear how it happened. Yet the result is here: six short movies about the most visible yet awkwardly unnoticed people in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh: the rickshaw pullers. The movies serve as a pilot for a television show to make especially young people aware of the importance of the people that transport them every day. The movies were funded primarily by three Dutch science institutions, and the idea came from a Dutch director, Roland Postma, known for his ability to discover new talent: ‘Without chief Arifur (his most recent discovery) this would never have happened’.

Director of the short movies, Arifur Rhaman, explains the invisibility of the protagonists. ‘They are mostly seen as transportation. The first time you get in a rickshaw, when you see the legs and the shoulders and the hands of the rickshaw pullers, you can see their struggle and you feel like shit. But after three months, people all feel the same. And there is another thing: if you don’t use them for transport, how will they survive? We have always taken them for granted, as if they are in this universe just to serve us.”

It has to be fun

Every short movie of the series ‘Rishkawala’ focuses on one person, either a rickshaw puller or a regular customer. The idea was to make an entertaining show instead of a serious documentary about the problematic lives of the rickshaw pullers. ‘It must be fun to watch,’ Arifur Rhaman explains, ‘because young people don’t have the patience to listen to anything in-depth or something that lasts too long. We are used to social media and when we don’t like something, we just push the button. We relate to things with a remote control: push the button and the channel changes, changes, changes.’

Roland Postma originally was asked by IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, to look into the possibility of making a short documentary about the rickshaw pullers. Thinking about this, and about the problem Rhaman sketches, he came up with the idea of a show inspired by a Dutch show ‘Taxi,’ in which a television host drives a cab and has a conversation with his (unknowing) client. Another source of inspiration: Carpool Karaoke, also a show in a cab. It is the same intimacy of two people having a ride together and talking, but without one of them (the host in a ‘normal’ television show) having the power of being in a setting he or she knows, whereas the other is new to it.

Rhaman: ‘We want people (and he means both the people in the show and the viewer) to enjoy the ride. Everyone knows riding the rickshaw from their childhood. So, you know, when people see that on the screen, they can relate to the past. They can be nostalgic, they can feel the situation because they know it. And maybe they say; oh my God I was in this kind of situation and I didn’t even talk to the rickshaw puller. After watching this, maybe we rethink.’

Change the way people look at rickshaw pullers, make them ‘normal’ people, that was the idea behind this approach. It was inspired by something Hasan Ashraf noticed. Ashraf, an anthropologist who did research on the position of rickshaw pullers, was the third person that was involved from the beginning.

He interviewed both clients and pullers. Some clients told him; hearing rickshaw pullers talking on their cellphone to their wife at home, suddenly made them realize that pullers too have families and also made them aware of the way they had looked at them before: mainly as things, as the motor pulling the rickshaw.

The difficulty of filming

Filming two people talking to each other in an open rickshaw is a bit of a challenge, but filming two people talking to each other in a rickshaw in a super hectic city like Dhaka is practically impossible. Even when it is ‘quiet’ it is noisy on the road in Dhaka. It took a while before Arifur Rhaman and his crew figured out how to do it.  Even now they are still learning.

At first they tried using a rig on the rickshaw, with two little camera’s on it, but the image shook. Than they made a DIY rig, with springs incorporated, but that made the rickshaw seem like two rickshaws next to each other, very big. ‘Oh, the amount of incidents we had, the scratches on cars, the arguments! In the end we got rid of the thing and chose to use three rickshaws, with the camera- and soundmen sitting in the other two rickshaws.’ That brings us to the sound, also an extreme challenge. ‘Lots of very nice stories we couldn’t even use because of the bad quality of the sound. It is so complicated to properly record the conversation.’ Yet they did a terrific job: see for yourself in this video of one of the few femalerickshaw pullers. Rumana.

Customer Dola

In one of the shows a regular customer, Dola, is being interviewed. She tells about her feeling of safety in the rickshaw, and how the familiar ‘apa’, ‘sister’, with which a rickshaw driver welcomes her, melts her heart. For women rickshaws are of vital importance. Dhaka buses and metro are often not safe for them, and sometimes not even available: ‘no ladies seat, no ladies seat’ is often heard during rush hours. Women encounter sexual harassment on a daily basis whenever they take the bus or metro. There are plans to expand the highways and the metro lines, since Dhaka has the dubious reputation of being the ‘slowest city in the world’, meaning traffic jams are the status quo on practically all roads in the capital city of Bangladesh. For the traffic these new plans may be a solution, for women, school children and elderly people they aren’t, since highways are forbidden for rickshaws and newly built gated communities also banish the rickshaw.

In the same episode of Rishkawala, Dola shares a moving story about a rikshaw puller that stayed with her when she herself had a hard time having just learned a friend had committed suicide. As if to underline this drama, it begins to pour heavily.

Streams of rickshaws

There is a parallel between the rickshaw pullers and water. The constant stream of rickshaw pullers in Dhaka is a bit like a lifeline in the city. So many people depend on it: not only the 1 million pullers and their families, also the owners of the 20.000 rickshaws, the foodsellers, the rickshaw builders, the rickshaw painters and of course, the over 20 million clients. One of the projects of IHE, partly funded by NWO, the Dutch Research Council, is research into understanding the dynamic between hydrological processes like flooding, riverbank erosion and waterlogging, and social processes, like migration, urbanization processes and governance. In this research the story of the rickshaw puller also plays a role. Rickshaw pullers are often farmers that can no longer live off their harvest, their land is flooded, the prices are too low, or it is the wrong season. That is why they travel to the city and send as much money home as they can save. In the meantime modernization of the city influences them too, since new highways and neighborhoods are often forbidden for them.

Corona forbids

And now there is Covid 19, yet another complication in the harsh life of rickshaw pullers. Director Arifur Rhaman and the production company Goopy Bagha was about to sign a contract with a television station when the Corona pandemic started. He was buying some food for his mother at the local bazaar when he saw people in the street trying to carry loads of stuff  home, angry because they were unable to hail a rickshaw. Then he realised that rickshaw pullers are unable to buy any stuff for themselves, since they don’t have their daily income during the lockdown. How will they survive?  

This made him think: ‘Okay, I think this is the time I should do something as a filmmaker. I shouldn’t think about money or anything.’ So he wrote an email to all his partners. ‘I really want to share this project online now, because the people that are giving us service throughout the year are in trouble.’ He found a platform, Bidiyanondo, that takes care of collecting money and providing food for the transport workers. ‘It had a really positive impact and people are helping, so many people are coming on board now.’ In the live program he presents every week, singers and scientists show up to help.

So, whoever wants to help take a look here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/goopybaghaproductions/videos/

Enjoy, and you can pause right at the start if you want to donate.

SIDEBOX

The Bidiyanondo platform collects money and provides food for the at risk population of Rickshaw drivers in Bangladesh. A live program is presented every week, with singers and scientists showing up to help. 

Whoever wants to help take a look here:  https://www.facebook.com/pg/goopybaghaproductions/videos/

Acknowledgements

The Rishkawala project is produced by
Ventoux Producties  and Goopy Bagha Productions  

In the context of
Urbanizing Deltas of the World Research Programme, Research for Global Development (WOTRO), Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)

Thanks to

Water Governance Department, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, The Netherlands

Sociology of Development and Change Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), Dhaka, Bangladesh

Flood Hazard Research Centre Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Deltares, The Netherlands


karinschagen

Karin Schagen is a science director/journalist making documentaries for television, writing about science, and teaching at University Groningen how to make science movies.

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