Filmmaker and cinematographer Deepak Bhagvanth’s recent Tamil film Witness examines the problem of manual scavenging and the deaths associated with it.
Since its release on OTT, the film has created heated debate on social media.
While communists in the state have hailed the film for how it critiques the problem and depicts the role of the workers’ union in addressing it, it has also evoked criticism for ‘erasing’ the role of Ambedkarite organisations on the issue.
Caste in pop culture
Before attempting to interpret Witness and its politics, it is essential to understand the already established narratives around caste and manual scavenging in pop culture. In almost all popular narratives in cinema, literature, media and academia, caste has more or less been reduced to be a problem of only the Dalits. And even here, the stories often remain about honour killings, custodial deaths, manual scavenging deaths or sexual crimes against Dalit women. There has been repeated commodification of such victim stories and the lens on caste is hardly focused elsewhere.
In fact, the documentary and fictional films made on manual scavenging have been very problematic themselves.
Whether it was Amudhan R.P.’s Pee (Shit) (2003), Divya Bharathi’s Kakoos (2018) or Jithin Issac Thomas’ Pra. Thoo. Mu – that was part of the anthology Freedom Fight (2022), they have all revelled in shocking the viewers with extremely graphical images. In all these three films, we repeatedly witness workers cleaning mountains of human faeces or worse, covered in faeces themselves.
In their attempt to shock and awe their audience about this caste practice, these films have ended up compromising the dignity of the already oppressed through such depiction. Irrespective of their lofty claims, these films turned out almost as violent as the practice of manual scavenging itself.
The visual imagery on the subject is so problematic that even a simple online search of any award-winning filmmaker or photographer’s work throws similar graphical images. So, when a film like Witness releases, it is only natural that one approaches it initially with a certain amount of scepticism.
The politics of Witness
However, Witness surprises the viewer with its powerful and sensitive narrative that sharply critiques the problem of manual scavenging in a metro city like Chennai. The film intentionally turns its attention towards the violent caste structure and the apathetic state and holds them responsible for the problem.
While the film is primarily narrated through the journey of Indrani, a mother and corporation worker who loses her son Parthiban to manual scavenging, it also smoothly blends multiple other layers – the role of caste structure in the development of a metropolitan city, the condition of contractual corporation workers, the resettlement of slum dwellers and the casteist nature of gated housing societies. But in all these multiple narratives, the film is very careful to never compromise the dignity and self-respect of those who are already affected by the society. For it never revels in gore, victimhood or exaggerated emotional drama. But instead, shows the marginalised as resilient individuals who don’t forgo their humanity or camaraderie, in spite of having to perennially deal with the violence of the social structure.
The court room climax surprises the audience when the power centres of the caste society literally take over the judicial process and reduce the judge to a mere spectator. This cynical imagination works as a very powerful critique at the end.
The sensitivity of the visual aesthetics
The film’s visual imagery comes across as very thoughtful. Deepak uses his camera as a humanising tool and tells the story with relentless honesty and empathy. The film takes painstaking efforts to make its narrative feel real. We see this realness in the casting, performance, staging, costumes, production design and every other department.
While the protagonists Rohini and Shraddha Srinath are presented as de-glamourised everyday characters, the rest of the cast is made up of lesser known actors or even non-actors. The performances and staging remain subtle and help in blurring the lines between reality and fiction.
The cinematography’s choice of colour and movement adds to the understated quality of the film giving it an almost docu-drama feel. The film doesn’t try to grab the viewers’ attention with graphical imagery, hyper drama or formulaic sentiment. Instead, it creates a sense of reality and proximity with the audience to punches its gut really hard.
In particular, Deepak seems fascinated in capturing the faces of the working class with dignity. They aren’t represented as victimised commodity but as individuals thriving even in adverse situations. The casting of every primary and secondary character seemed impeccable, and it was humanising how their faces and expressions were captured. It reminds one of the work of the famous American photographer Gordon Parks who documented the everyday lives of Afro-Americans, achieving both journalistic and aesthetic goals.
The key scene where the manual scavenging death occurs is portrayed here with immense sensitivity. We are shown the incident only through a security camera recording that is in black and white with sound muted. Such a visual and aural choice, plays down the gore of the moment and communicates it as a factual detail. The film seems to believe that when a caste practice is violent enough, there is no need to capture it in excruciating graphic detail.
Communist or Ambedkarite politics?
On the one side, communists have appreciated the film for how their role against manual scavenging has been portrayed in the film. The film, in fact, depicts CPI(M) activist and district secretary of the central Chennai committee G. Selva in a role similar to his real life activism.
On the other hand, there has been criticism about the absence of Ambedkarite organisations who have been working against the practice of manual scavenging. But irrespective of this debate, if we closely look at the film’s politics, we can understand that its politics is essentially Ambedkarite in nature.
World over, films that have been influenced by Marxist and communist thought don’t shy away from portraying the bloody nature of state violence or the proletarian revolution. And this practice of depicting violence has been imbibed by the Tamil films with left leaning politics.
In Asuran (2019), Vetrimaran uses the Kilvenmani massacre of 1968 to create a bloody revenge drama. The film is filled with elaborate violence and killings. And in the recent Jai Bhim (2021), filmmaker T.J. Gnanavel has adopted prolonged shocking techniques to depict the gruelling nature of police torture. While the violence captured in these films might only be a fraction of what oppressed people face in real life, such graphical portrayal also tends to strip off any remaining dignity of the victimised.
This is where Deepak’s Witness stands different from other left leaning films.
Witness might have documented the role of workers’ union and communist activists, but its underlying politics remains firmly Ambedkarite. The violence is communicated to us through the characters, their conversations, emotional states and life events. And not through graphic imagery that could compromise the dignity and self-respect of the already oppressed. This deliberate choice echoes the words of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – “self-respect is the most vital factor in life.” Without it, man is a cipher. Ambedkarite flags and organisations might be absent in the film, but it starts with a quote on manual scavenging by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and stays close to his ideology till the end.
At every point, the film attempts to convey the violence of the manual scavenging practice without showing the actual violence. But it draws us closer to the humanity of the oppressed and the aloofness of the state machinery and caste society. It is very laudable especially considering the film has chosen a premise that could have easily slipped into victimhood commodification.
Rajesh Rajamani is a filmmaker and film critic.
This article was first published on The Wire.