Manhole covers fall into that category of things New Yorkers walk by (and in this case, walk on) every day, but rarely notice. If you look closely, though, you’ll see that right under “N.Y.C. Sewer” they say “Made in India.” Fascinated by this interesting pairing on one of the city’s most iconic urban elements, filmmaker and anthropologist Natasha Raheja traveled to Howrah, India (a city of one million full of foundries from the British Colonial era) to document how these manhole covers are made and to “learn more about the labor infrastructure concealed in the built infrastructure of our cities.”
Raheja’s resulting 26-minute documentary called “Cast In India” provides a glimpse into the physical labor of manhole covers, as well as the lives of the men creating them. In the trailer, (h/t Gothamist) we see barefoot workers in a dirt-floor factory using their feet to press the shape into the 300-pound metal covers, carrying buckets of pig iron on their heads, pouring molten metal from the buckets, and more.
The film also goes into the social and political aspects behind the manhole covers. As The Drive notes, the workers are paid by piece (hence their fast pace) and unionized. Raheja says, “They are politicized and know they deserve more for what they do. Yet they’re also aware of how their own transnational mobility starkly differs from that of the product they make.” After visiting a couple of foundries here in New York, she adds, “A cast-iron manhole cover from India is not imbued with the same sentimentality and rugged glamour as an iron hatchet cast in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.”
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