Streaming On: SonyLIV
Debutant Deepak’s Witness opens with a quote from Dr BR Amedkar that hints at what the film sets out to convey. “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.”
This is reiterated several times in the film. The first of it is when Parthiban (Tamilarasan), a final-year college student and a swimmer, is forced to clean the sewage of an apartment for not paying back a loan. But he inhales poisonous gases while cleaning and dies. Witness aims to explain the horrors of manual scavenging and in its pursuit, could have easily taken the tone of a documentary (Kakkoos is a great documentary on the subject if you’re ever looking for one). But its taut screenplay comes in handy. Deepak’s storytelling is at its best from the start. Take the introduction scenes of Parthiban for example. His respect for his mother is conveyed with a small yet effective scene — once he wakes up early in the morning, he calmly moves around the house without disturbing her sleep. His infectious smile just instantly clicks with you, and you are invested in his story within a couple of scenes.
There are three other important characters in the film. Parthiban’s mother Indrani (Rohini), a corporation worker who sweeps the roads. Petharaj (G Selva), a communist union leader who fights for the rights of people, and Parvathy (Shraddha Srinath), an architect, who is also Parthiban’s friend and neighbour. Petharaj helps Indrani file a court case against the apartment secretary, members, and sewage cleaning contractors, and the film traces the journey of the trio to seek justice.
It gives equal importance to different characters and seamlessly weaves in their stories together. And as a result, we do not get a story just about manual scavenging, but also witness stories of privatisation in cleaning projects, the exploitation of corporation workers, and the prevalance of caste oppression despite economic status. It is in the effort that Witness takes to not just depict the issue in a one dimensional way, but get into the lives of these individuals and their everyday problems, that the film shines.
Coming back to the Ambedkar quote, the seriousness of the issue is often stressed through dialogues later on in the film. This first happens when an old man tells the police officer about the different youngsters who have died over the past few years, with the last one being Parthiban. He says, “All these people belong to our community, and till date, not one person from a different community has died of cleaning shit and sewage.” Similarly, Petharaj is questioned by a writer about how he can divide people based on caste when he is fighting against oppression. He says, “Who decided that Parthiban should be only cleaning the sewage to repay the debt? Just look at the caste of the people the corporation recruits for this kind of work, and then you will know who oppresses whom.”
Witness also uses dialogues to depict relatively finer details in the film that shows the biases that exist in communities, and adds to the realistic approach. Sample this. When Parvathy visits Parthiban’s slum, a police officer warns her, “Paatha indha area maari theriyalaye, ivangellam romba dangerous, criminal activities neraya nadakura edam idhu.” (You do not look like you belong to this area, these people are very dangerous and a lot of criminal activities happen here).
Manual scavenging is banned in India. But 340 people have died cleaning the sewers in the last five years, the film tells us. But why has no one been convicted? The answer on paper is a little complicated, but the film simplifies it. For instance, when the head of operations and maintenance of the sewage system is questioned about the deaths, he says, “According to law, manual scavenging warns about not entering the sewer without any safety gears and handling human waste with bare hands. It does not say no one should enter the sewer.” The film then asks the right questions to the contractors, and the audience. Why is the process yet to be completely mechanised? Has the necessary action been taken against such deaths? Who is responsible for the deaths? And this leads to a spree of blame games with each of them pointing fingers. Witness is not without its flaws, as it becomes preachy, and loses steam at times. But the clarity with which the film addresses the issue deserves appreciation.
Rohini is brilliant as the mother who has lost her only child and is relentlessly fighting for justice. When Indrani is told that she might not win the case, she is sad, but not dejected. She says, “Jeikalana paravala sir / It is okay if we don’t win. But my son’s killers should stand in the court and give an answer.” And that’s what Witness wants to do. So the film does not play out like a legal thriller awaiting a dramatic result. It is rather about the valid arguments it makes. This is also the reason why the film’s climax might be difficult to digest. But the climax comes with a wonderful touch that points out how irrespective of who we are, we just pass the buck and remain mere witnesses.