Manual scavenging has been prohibited by the Indian government since 1993 and was made a punishable offence in 2013. However, Dalits and people from oppressed castes are routinely forced into sanitation work, in many cases resulting tragically in their deaths. Though Rs 10 lakh is to be provided as compensation to the victim’s family, there have been lapses in processing it in a majority of the cases. The number of deaths caused by manual scavenging is usually more than what government records show.
While these are some of the facts that have been reiterated by activists, journalists, and others pushing for the eradication of manual scavenging, it is rare to see these details being translated on screen, in a fictionalised story. The Tamil film Witness, which released on OTT on December 9, helmed by debutante director Deepak and screenplay writers Muthuvel and JP Sanakya, manages to narrate a powerful and heartbreaking story about the death of 20-year-old Parthiban caused by manual scavenging. Indrani (Rohini), a corporation worker and single mother, decides to take on those responsible for the death of her college-going son. Parvathy (Shraddha Srinath), an architect and Parthiban’s friend, is one of the people who supports Indrani when the case goes to trial.
Since its release, the film has garnered praise on social media for its accurate and realistic portrayal of the problem. However, it is interesting that cinematographer-turned-director Deepak uses the word ‘fantasy’ while describing the film. “We are only imagining what would happen if the victim’s family fights, because in reality they lack the resources to do so,” Deepak says.
Deepak recounts how he researched the subject for over three years along with his team. “I met with activists and journalists reporting on manual scavenging. We attended the meetings held by workers’ unions and spoke to people being forced into sanitation work and manual scavenging. I also conducted photography classes for college students in Semmencherry, the locality the film is set in. I have recreated many frames they had captured. We are planning on releasing the original photos along with the reframed shots from the film in a few months. It is because of the extensive research and the involvement of the affected communities that I can say with certainty that this is not a film projecting an outsider’s view. It shows the struggles of my people,” Deepak tells TNM. He also adds that he was influenced by the works of filmmakers Ken Loach, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Ritwik Ghatak, and singer Nina Simone.
Photograph by Vinnarasu
Frame recreated in 'Witness'. Credit: Sony LIV
Photograph by Saran Raj
Frame recreated in 'Witness'.Credit: Sony LIV
Witness does not shy away from positioning itself as an anti-caste film and in fact has scenes and dialogues that underline how manual scavenging is a result of caste-based discrimination. It is also explained through scenes that counter the layman’s view, and more specifically a caste-blind view on the subject. Examples include the scene where Parvathy and Cibi (who works at the law firm that takes up Indrani’s case) discuss why manual scavenging has not been eliminated, and cite how it is not because of the lack of access to technology, innovation or corruption, but because of how deeply entrenched caste-based discrimination is. Another example is the conversation between Petharaj (G Selva) and a journalist where the former reiterates the same.
Not to forget the scene where an aged man fights the cops for not allowing a group of teenagers to put up obituary posters and questions why his people have been deprived of even the right to mourn despite so many young people being forced into manual scavenging time and again. Reductionist narratives on the subject such as blaming the sanitation workers for taking up such jobs rather than holding the people who are exploiting them responsible are also addressed in Witness.
Credit: Sony LIV
Unlike Article 15 and its Tamil remake Nenjukku Needhi, Witness does not visualise the traumatising death caused by manual scavenging. “Showing the characters with honesty and dignity was central to the vision. At no point in the film do we look at Indrani or her son with pity, it is the rage that audiences feel. If I choose to show that as a filmmaker, we would be nullifying everything else that we’d like to say through the film,” says Deepak. Adding to his point, actor Rohini, who plays the role of Indrani, adds, “She fights at her workplace towards the end not because she suddenly feels the urge to right a wrong, but because she is living a life with dignity and is enraged when that is taken away from her.”
Depiction of violence and abuse on screen, especially of victims belonging to marginalised communities, and re-creating disturbing visuals to evoke sympathy has drawn flak in the past for being insensitive to the very people it attempts to represent. “We don’t have to visualise the violence for audiences to sympathise with the victims. Filmmakers perhaps do it also because the oppressed communities are not in a position to question them,” Deepak observes.
Witness’s emphasis on treating its characters with dignity can also be felt through its staging of protest sequences that come as a powerful counter-image to the picturisation of protests in mainstream cinema in the past, usually viewing it as causing nuisance and not as a tool for the oppressed to fight.
Communist union leaders and comrades come to the support of Indrani at all steps along the way. When asked about the film not discussing the work of Ambedkarite organisations towards eradication of manual scavenging, Deepak remarks, “Indrani embodies Ambedkarite principles at different points in the film. We did not find photos of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the houses of Semmencherry. I had mirrored that in the film. So it was not a conscious omission or anything of that sort. In fact, I had added a quote by Ambedkar paraphrased as a dialogue but it did not make it to the final cut because it felt force-fitted.” The film also opens with a quote from BR Ambedkar that says, “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question of whether he does scavenging or not.”
Credit: Sony LIV
Explaining further, he says, “I hail from Thanjavur where the influence of communism is prominent. Petharaj (G Selva)’s character was an ode to comrades and activists. Similarly, Kalpana (Petharaj’s wife) was symbolic of the sacrifices that the partners of activists like Jenny Marx have made to support them. A lot of films claim to praise communists when they don’t. I wanted to acknowledge their contribution.”
A scene featuring Kalpana and Indrani. Credit: Sony LIV
Anti-caste films are few and far between. Are producers and actors apprehensive of signing political films? Speaking to TNM, Shraddha Srinath shares, “Yes, we don’t see them often. More than apprehension, I think filmmakers need to be personally invested in the issue. Deepak is very interested in the civil rights movement and the history of minority leaders.”
Rohini, while expressing that she is delighted with the response to the film, points out that previous ventures like Manusangada unfortunately did not open to commercial success. Made on a shoestring budget of Rs 2 crore, Witness initially found it difficult to bring producers on board. Deepak believes that there were also a few other factors that caused the producers to tread lightly. “We were supposed to shoot in April but we could only proceed during the second lockdown when it was only commercial entertainers with big stars that resumed shooting. Having bankrolled successful films like Oh Baby, the production company People Media would have wanted to make their Tamil debut with a well-known name. We are grateful to producers TG Vishwa Prasad and Vivek Kuchibhotla. The film would not have been possible without the support of actors Shraddha Srinath and Rohini,” says the director.
Director Deepak on the sets of 'Witness'.
Behind the scenes image from the sets of 'Witness'.
As for the anticipated response from audiences, Rohini observes that she would like to see the film on the big screens, while Shraddha shares that she would like to see it open to an international audience. The two actors and the director also say that they are expecting the film to initiate a dialogue around manual scavenging that would ultimately result in solutions being implemented. “Even in the film, we have clearly shown the different officers and departments that are responsible. We have also paved the way for solutions to be discussed and we are hoping for that to happen,” Deepak says.
The trial in the film includes the questioning of the residential association secretary, contractor, chief engineer, sewerage services department, along with mention of the health department, Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and the Corporation, among others, to highlight how officials at various levels are complacent. Dialogues and montages point to haphazard urban planning, unplanned slum clearance projects, and a brief shot of a Swachh Bharat poster, prodding viewers to think about factors contributing to the continuation of the inhumane practice of manual scavenging.
Be it Indrani or Parvathy, none of the characters are uni-dimensional. Parvathy, who is empathetic towards Indrani, fails to understand the ordeals of her own mother. When she does, her struggles with her identity grow stronger, pushing her to rethink her choices. “I watched Parvathy and I felt Parvathy has always been the character that takes up space, who draws boundaries, and is unafraid of speaking her mind for fear of being hated. She is not a people-pleaser and she does not pretend to be one. I thought to myself that I want to be who Parvathy is. As for Parvathy’s struggles with her identity, the act of her moving out and starting afresh is her way of finding new ways to tackle the curveballs life throws at her. She feels lost and knows there is a battle ahead. She wants to fight because she knows she has not been defeated yet,” Shraddha observes.
We see Indrani, the character with the most screen time, experiencing different stages of grief, from denial to rage, even as the larger questions about the purpose behind her life loom. “Indrani is not someone who’d take things lying down but she is also not used to fighting, especially when the odds are stacked against her. Throughout the film, she only talks about wanting the perpetrators to take the stand,” Rohini tells TNM.
In a significant scene featuring Shraddha and Rohini, the former experiences an anxiety attack. Rohini shares that she, too, has been feeling anxious in recent times. It urges viewers to think about the disparity in the access to mental health based on caste, gender, and other factors adding to one’s social identity. “We decided to shoot the scene in a car because only then we could juxtapose the contrast between Parvathy and Indrani’s anxiety. The situation is so similar and yet in Indrani’s case, it is caused by greater levels of social injustice. We also notice how a lot of women in real life, especially sanitation workers, fall short of the vocabulary to discuss mental health due to lack of access,” the debutante filmmaker says.
Parvathy and Indrani seated inside the car. Credit: Sony LIV
The reality of people’s identity and positioning influencing their actions is also exemplified through a couple of courtroom scenes. While the judge interjects Indrani’s lawyer to ask him not to waste the court’s time setting the context about manual scavenging, the judge himself spends lavish time tracing the etymology of the phrase ‘passing the buck’ later in the film.
The relationship between Indrani and Parvathy and also between other women characters is a show of strength, support, and sisterhood. If Parvathy counts on her friend Nancy during times of distress, Indrani is supported by her neighbour when she mourns the loss of her son. “All these characters are inspired from reality. The cinematography team included me, Vinoth J, and Avanti because there is a difference in the gaze and lensing when women cinematographers are on board,” Deepak says.
The scene where other women protest, standing in solidarity with Indrani. Credit: Sony LIV.
Witness is currently streaming on Sony LIV.