Witness is a rare film that earns the anti-caste tag

Debutant director Deepak’s film chooses not to linger on visually depicting the death and indignities that manual scavenging causes.
Witness Movie Poster
Witness Movie Poster

Few filmmakers know how to translate real-life systemic injustices to the screen without taking the lazy route of recreating scenes of oppression in graphic detail. This has become true particularly of movies attempting to speak anti-caste politics Debutant director Deepak’s Witness is a rarity in that regard, centred around Indrani (Rohini), who fights to secure justice for her son Parthiban (Tamilarasan), after he dies from being forced to do manual scavenging work.

What Witness gets so refreshingly right

The film chooses not to linger on visually depicting the death and indignities that manual scavenging causes. One cannot help but think of the scenes in the Hindi movie Article 15 (2019) and its Tamil remake, Nejukku Needhi (2021) starring Udhayanidhi Stalin, in that respect. In both, a man emerges from a sewer in slow motion, black effluence oozing off him. The background music hits a crescendo. His face, his humanity is of no consequence to the camera. Many will recall how Article 15 director Anubhav Sinha offered the most perplexing of defences at the time, in reaction to the critique of this scene. “The guy is actually a manual scavenger, but the muck is artificial. It was created by our production designer. The actor went into a fake underground water tank created for him,” he had told Scroll, back in 2019. The director needed to reinforce the very structure of caste and enforced caste-based work, supposedly to make a statement against both?

Witness director Deepak is careful not to recreate on screen manual scavenging nor show Parthiban’s death. His body isn’t reduced to a site of play, where a drama suitable enough to move caste-privileged viewers can be staged. The filmmaker thoughtfully finds other ways to register the indefensibility of forcing Dalit and other lowered-caste communities to do manual scavenging work. Instead of the victims, Deepak focuses on the enablers, the profiteers and the perpetrators. This starts from the association president of an apartment complex. It goes on to the contractor who hires Parthiban; the police who obfuscate justice by refusing to follow procedures such as filing an FIR under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act; then the indifference of state apparatus such as the municipal corporations and even the courts.

The film unsparingly documents the casteism, law-breaking and deliberate attempt to dodge accountability that lead to manual scavenging deaths. If the plot is about a legal battle waged by one woman, through its powerful ending, Witness elevates itself by indicting the whole system. From the association president to corporation officials to the courts themselves, their ability to wriggle free serves as damning evidence against those responsible for manual scavenging deaths in reality. The way the sequence is written shows intelligence. It drags the viewer out of one fictional story to the grim reality of non-existent conviction rates under the PEMSR Act. It tells you in no unclear terms who is to blame in the real world.

Witness’s gaze on those whose lives are impacted by manual scavenging, on the other hand, attempts to remain respectful. The director appears to understand the need to register the defiance, resilience and everyday life of the communities about whom the film is about, alongside showing the oppression they face.  We see Indrani’s everyday defiance at her job as a sanitation worker, long before we see her climb the court’s steps for justice. But we first meet her at a tender, playful exchange between her and Parthiban. Their relationship, as a family of two, is based on empathy for each other. They tease one another and are mutually supportive. Yes, it works for the sake of the narrative, that viewers care for what happens to Parthiban later in the film. It is also a political choice to open a film on a subject such as this with dignity, instead of violence.

The women of Witness

Indrani’s defiance, her grief, her anger against the people who took her son’s life, and her determination to hold them accountable, forms the backbone of the film. It’s interesting how the film deals with the grief and rage of women, oppressed by gender norms, caste or both. We see Indrani often set adrift, in a daze from the weight of her grief. It doesn’t dismiss her grief, it offers her space to feel it. To be numbed by it at times, or sob her heart out as she recalls everyday conversations with the son she has lost. Yet, Witness isn’t only about her victimhood.  Her rage snaps her out of her grief. 

It also does not romanticise her defiance. She is forced to fight, because of her caste and gender. This, Witness acknowledges. The film shows her isolation, the moments of solidarity she has and the many, many ways in which she has to fight. She has to fight her contractor daily. She has to fight corporation officials who withhold her salary. She has to fight the police. She has to fight in court. She has to fight despite her over-burdened mental health. The wearying endlessness of it tells us again whom to blame, without taking away her humanity.

Indrani finds an unlikely ally in Parvathy (Shraddha Srinath) who lives in the very same apartment complex Parthiban dies at. The minute Parvathy discovers this, she picks a side. Parvathy’s first act of solidarity is to find CCTV footage of Parthiban right before he enters the septic tank and hand over the evidence to Indrani. We see the oppression of gender from another perspective through Parvathy’s far more privileged life. A single woman who lives life on her own terms is hated by her conservative neighbours, vilified, dehumanised by being spoken about as “ithu” (this), harassed and disregarded. Her response is to build up a persona of near-constant aggression — a sharply recognisable armour all women suffocated by orthodoxy build for ourselves, when we choose to defy and fight back.

Parvathy stands by Indrani until the end, not as an upper-caste saviour, but in solidarity. As a woman who chooses justice over everything else.

How Witness depicts policing

In south Asia, caste and class are markers for which neighbourhoods are overly policed. Both decide what areas in the city and countryside are criminalised. Caste and class tell the police whose deaths are of little consequence. Kollywood can keep making over-the-top, violent cop-hero movies for its ageing male stars, but the reality is different. From the day of Parthiban’s death to the 300th day of the court trial, Witness ensures its viewers are aware of police complicity in manual scavenging deaths. It faithfully records their indifference, the scant respect with which they address people from places like Chemenchery in Chennai where the film is set. It shows the policing and harassment these neighbourhoods routinely face. Cops are the violent arm of the state, the film pointedly tells us.

It is an exhaustive list of people and systems that are responsible for deaths by manual scavenging. So it’s a credit to the filmmaker and to his scriptwriters Muthuvel and JP Sanakya that they have managed to seamlessly fit them all into a two-hour long film.

Progressive coding: What’s missing?

We primarily get to know Parthiban through the memories of Indrani and Parvathy. He loves Bob Marely. He is funny and kind. He’s a young Ambedkarite with big dreams. But still, Dr BR Ambedkar is largely missing from the narrative. We only know that Parthiban is an Ambedkarite because of a fleeting scene of him celebrating April 14 with a cake covered in blue icing and lettering commemorating Ambedkar Jayanthi.

It is Communist flags that take centre-stage when the film shifts to progressive movements working to end manual scavenging. A Leftist leader, Petharaj (G Selva), helps Indrani fight the case. His office walls bear posters of Karl Marx, Lenin, M Singaravelar — a Tamil communist leader responsible for the first-ever May Day celebrations in India — and even a copy of ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’.

The last, a popular photo from the 1930s in America, is particularly amusing. The photo that depicts white construction workers seated precariously on a suspended steel beam during a lunch break, is considered an iconic (read romanticised) representation of the American Dream during the Steel Age. Even today, the Washington Post says, the photo is shared widely on May Day as a testament to the working-class of America. Apart from the crass romanticisation of precarious working conditions, the photo in reality was staged as part of promotional material for 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Perhaps the photo’s making and legacy speaks to class and race politics and capitalism in the US in ways the photographer's commissioner never intended.

Its inclusion in Witness is rather out of place. What is not included though is an equal reference to Ambedkarite organisations like the Safai Karamchari Andolan or the many smaller groups who work across Tamil Nadu. The film may be set in a specific area of Chennai, but it talks about a problem that exists in a state that has registered the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in the country for the last three years.

Without an equal space for the blue flag of the Ambedkarite movement, the film undercuts the work that the movement has done in the annihilation of caste. It is also impossible to not to see this exclusion within the larger context of Tamil cinema where the red flag of communist parties has been seen on screen since the 1980s, in films such as Sivappu Malli to recent movies like Suriya-starrer Jai Bhim (2021). The ability to bring that dark blue flag bearing the dhamma chakra onto screens in Tamil cinema has been a far rarer and more radical move. A flag that represents self-determination. The one instance I can recall where the red and blue flags have shared equal place in an on-screen protest sequence is director Aithiyan’s anti-war film Irandam Ulagaporein Kadaisi Gundu (2019).

Tamil cinema often sets forth its politics through a carefully crafted encoding of background paraphernalia. Take note of the books, posters, slogans or statues in the background and to a considerable degree, you can guess the politics of the filmmaker quite often.

It’s not as if Witness erases caste from the problem of manual scavenging. It reiterates it, as it should, at every step. The history of Tamil Nadu’s Left parties' work in the annihilation of caste is complex. The claiming of progressive spaces either in the name of Communism or Ambedkarite ideals is an ongoing concern in the anti-caste movement across India. There is genuine displeasure from Ambedkarites that the Left erases their stake in progressive politics. In that context, the lack of equal representation of the role of Ambedkarite organisations to end manual scavenging needs to be seen as a considerable lapse by the filmmaker.

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