We hope you were able to enjoy Cast in India! The film has been taken down, but this page will remain up with the trailer, filmmaker interview, and other teaching resources.
The next installment of the Screening Room series features Cast in India, a film by anthropologist and filmmaker Natasha Raheja. This highly immersive film follows the manufacture of manhole covers from India to New York City. Manhole covers are a ubiquitous, often unseen, yet constantly trampled part of the urban landscape. Rather than going under the manhole covers into New York’s underground, Cast in India explores the depths of the surface of these objects, taking us to the factory where they are produced. The film is a beautiful and patient tale of manufacture that visibilizes the social life of manhole covers. Viewers are immersed in the dusty and physically grueling world of the foundry as they follow the worker’s daily rhythm of gathering coal, transporting heavy materials, preparing casts, melting iron, taking breaks, and negotiating wages. The film maintains at the center of its narrative the materiality, material transformation, and presence of the manhole covers. Through this focus on the production of infrastructure, Raheja’s film explores the disparate power relations and uneven forms of global interconnectedness through which these objects come into being and become mobile in ways that differ from the workers who make them. Through a complex and detailed look at the process of a simultaneously artisanal and industrial form of manufacture, Cast in India weaves together the daily acts of labor, the dignity and care of the workers, their imaginings and hopes as manifested through songs and labor struggles.
Iconic and ubiquitous, thousand of manhole covers dot the streets of New York City. Enlivening the everyday objects around us, this short film is a glimpse of the working lives of the men behind the manhole covers in New York City.
Natasha Raheja is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at New York University. She holds a graduate certificate in culture and media from NYU, where she trained in filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts; a Masters in Asian cultures and languages from the University of Texas at Austin; and bachelors degrees in biology and Asian studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Natasha’s doctoral research examines questions of citizenship, belonging, and agency in the context of current Pakistani immigration to India. Her research is supported by grants from the American Institute for Indian Studies, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Fulbright-Hays Program. She is the codirector of the Sindhi Voices Project, an oral history initiative. With David MacDougall, Natasha recently conducted a video workshop on childhood and modernity in India in the state of Rajasthan.
Patricia Alvarez: How did you decide to explore the material and social life of such an ubiquitous, yet overlooked object?
Natasha Raheja: The hustle and bustle of New York City reminded me of the big cities in India where I go for research and to visit family. Manhole covers are an iconic and ubiquitous part of New York’s urban landscape. On a stroll one day I looked down at my feet to see a boldly emblazoned “Made in India” stamp on a manhole cover. Having noticed one, I started to spot these covers all across the city. I became curious about how these pieces of city anatomy are made. What is the labor concealed behind the built infrastructure of our cities? As part of my coursework in anthropology, I had taken a course on materiality which incited in me a keen interest in the social lives of commodities and the convoluted circuits of their exchange.
PA: The title of the film seems to play with the words cast and caste: the process of casting to make the manhole covers, and the caste system in India. Can you comment on this connection you are making?
NR: There's a long and deep association of India with caste, so when folks hear the name of my film, they typically think it's “Caste in India” and not “Cast in India.” Cast refers both to the technical process of iron sandcasting, as well as the theatrical casting of the film's characters in India. The title, like the film, invites a closer look beyond first impressions.
PA: Early in the film we see women working in the factory, sweeping the floor, and putting the finishing touches on manhole covers. As the film progresses into the production process, these women fade out. What is the role of women within the factory?
NR: There are very few women workers at the foundry. Women work at the periphery of the factory and the film; the cleaning, sorting, and finishing work they do is integral to overall factory operations.
PA: The men’s singing throughout the film becomes an interesting motif. It is part of the texture of the factory and its ambient sounds. Yet the songs are about love, nostalgia, and distance. There is also one instance where the men are conversing about finding a bride. Can you talk about these conversations and songs about love, nostalgia, and distance that permeate the factory environment?
NR: The workers are often singing. The songs they sing are often about love and separation from the beloved. It was only in the editing room that I noticed the frequency of the singing. In the absence of a narration track, the songs offer a poetic lyricality that complements the workers’ mechanical rhythms and gritty work conditions.
Karl Marx compares the feeling of alienation from the products of one’s labor to the feeling of unrequited love. It is debilitating to love tirelessly but not see oneself in the object of one’s affection. In this light, the songs offer a poignant commentary on the estranged efforts of Indian factory workers, who toil away to make products that will be shipped thousands of miles away and then obliviously trampled on. However, the film’s showcasing of the dignified fervor and the sociality of the men at the foundry also problematizes categorical narratives of mechanical, disenchanted alienation as characteristic of factory work.
PA: I really appreciated how the film presents the relationship between work and nonwork. We see moments of rest throughout the workday: a tea break, casual chatter, and even workers napping while others work around them. How is work organized in the factory such that it allows the space for such moments, which seem different from moments of break time in other factory settings?
NR: The factory is a space of intense work, little rest, and rich sociality. There is only one line to collect the molten iron. Molders have to take turns in line to collect iron, which they then pour into the molds they've made earlier in the day. So that the same workers don't have to go home late every day, the workers rotate who gets in line first based on the day of the week. The periods of waiting and nonwork differ each day. While the breaks may seem a bit random, each team of workers is working on a precise schedule. The workers are not salaried and their compensation is connected to productivity or output. Their union mandates regular breaks, which each team of workers takes at intervals such that there is always some work happening at the factory. So while one team of lifters might be napping on their scheduled break, another team of lifters keeps work in motion.
PA: Can you comment on the workers’ union and the negotiations they are involved in?
NR: There is a range of workers in the foundry whose work is interdependent on that of the others. Some of the relationships are hierarchical. Most of the workers at this foundry are unionized. In the film they have come together for the negotiation of a contract with their employer. In addition to working closely in teams on the job, the team of five workers featured in this film live in the same locale. They are politicized and know they deserve more for what they do. As the film points out, they are also aware of how their own transnational mobility starkly differs from that of the products they make.
PA: The cinematography of the film is stunning, and it makes for a sensorially engaging documentary. The film engages both with the social world of the factory and the materiality of the production process, the textures of the factory and the embodied force central to the labor. Can you expand on how or why you found an observational/verité approach useful?
NR: Anthropology's hallmark research method is ethnography, which is both patient and immersive. In Cast in India, I aimed to build an immersive viewing experience. The observational approach foregrounds presence over explanation and feeling over interpretation. This is useful in inviting viewers to feel a film before understanding it. I also saw this film as a challenging exercise in combining aesthetics and ethnography. Moreover, there is a long visual history of omniscient narrators speaking for brown bodies that I wanted to avoid. As an anthropologist, it was important for me to convey a sense of shared time and space between viewers and workers, as reflected in the final scene.
PA: For most of the film we hear the ambient sounds of the factory. Yet there are certain moments when the voices of individual workers come to the forefront. Did you mike some workers? How did you approach sound recording in the film, especially under such conditions?
NR: I used a shotgun microphone mounted on top of my camera, alongside a wireless lavalier microphone. There are five workers featured in the film. I rotated the wireless lav mic among them each day. I scheduled a few production days to focus solely on audio pickups for ambient factory sound that I could then overlay on my video footage in postproduction.
PA: A particular soundbite that stood out for me was when someone off camera made a comment about America. It is a brief comment, but it was so semiotically dense in the context of the film. Was he talking directly to you? Can you unpack for us this subtle moment that condenses complex transnational connections between India and North America?
NR: In the scene you are referring to, Debashish, one of the workers, is stamping NYC into a manhole cover frame. The workers knew that I lived in New York and had seen their manhole covers there. After lifting the stamp, Debashish looked at me and said that he would go to America, laughing before he stepped up to the next cover frame. While the iron castings he makes at the factory easily travel to the United States, as a lower-caste, working-class Indian man, Debashish may not be as welcomed in the United States. The workers are acutely aware of how their mobility is limited compared to the mobility of the commodities they make.
It's also interesting how, in New York, the increasingly small-scale industrial production of goods is value-laden as authentic and rustic. A cast-iron manhole cover from India is not imbued with the same sentimentality or rugged glamor as an iron bottle opener cast in, say Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As part of my preproduction research and preparation for shooting in India, I filmed at both a bronze sculpture foundry and a metal spinning designer lamp shop in New York. What I learned is that while certain technical processes are executed both in India and the United States, there is a division of labor that maps onto what is being made. Only certain kinds of goods have a market for being handmade and artisanal. The manufacturing of large-scale infrastructural objects isn’t as quaint, and these objects are increasingly made in the Global South. I hope this film pushes us to think about how patterns of consumption are implicated in geographies of production.
Related Readings from Cultural Anthropology
Anand, Nikhil. 2011. “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai.” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4: 542–64.
Besky, Sarah. 2016. “The Future of Price: Communicative Infrastructures and the Financialization of Indian Tea.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 1: 4–29.
Kim, Eleana J. 2016. “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2: 162–87.
Lockrem, Jessica, and Adonia Lugo, eds. 2013. “Infrastructure.” Curated Collection, Cultural Anthropology website.
Flesh in Ecstasy, by George Stoney and David Bagnall
A Wife Among Wives, by David MacDougall and Judith MacDougall
Ten Minutes Older, Frank Herz
Foreign Parts, by Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki
Sweetgrass, by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Boxing Gym, by Frederick Wiseman