It’s always been easy to turn a blind eye to the social evils around us and to live in an imagined reality. When you are not the victim, it is easy to shrug your shoulders and blame this overpowering system that crushes those who don’t have the privilege to shruff it off. Debutant director Deepak’s Witness doesn’t give you a false sense of victory against these evils; it isn’t meant to prick you and plead with you to look. Witness throws at you a big, thick book with ‘LOOK’ in bold letters, and asks how ridiculous it is that we are now accustomed to looking at some of these social evils, like manual scavenging, as just another news topic.
Witness tells the story of how a middle-aged single mother Indrani (Rohini), who loses her college-going son Parthiban (Thamizharasan) to forced manual scavenging, chooses to fight back and not be silenced by the ones responsible for his death. Though she is up against a host of powerful people — from the owners of the apartment to the contractor, the sub-contractors, and some corrupt cops — she finds hope and support from a few guardian angels who find their way into her life. One among them is Petharaj (Selva C), a communist union leader, who first figures out the ploy behind Parthiban’s death and supports Indrani in her legal battle. Shraddha Srinath plays a free-spirited, sharp-tongued young woman, Parvathy, who lives in the apartment in which Parthiban died. She defies her neighbours and helps the late Parthiban find justice. A lawyer named Sivaprakasam (a fantastic Shanmugarajan) takes Indrani’s case and spits fire at the courthouse.
From the structure of the screenplay, Witness seems like a whodunit in the form of a legal drama, but it works more as a social drama. The film doesn’t wait anywhere to establish the socio-political angles that are fundamentally at play in any case of manual scavenging in India. People, like the pivotal landlord character (Srinath), have always been guilty of exploiting the state of the oppressed without having to be accountable. Through the casteist undertones in dialogues, the slang of Tamil spoken by each character, and the mentality exhibited towards people from certain localities and social classes, the film maps out who is the oppressor and who is oppressed.
Minutes into the story, you begin to notice a few cinematic liberties, and how there is a lot of convenience in the progression of events — for instance, Parvathy not only happens to be living at the same apartment in which the tragedy occurred, she is also Parthi’s swimming classmate and she is also the one who gets pivotal incriminating evidence. However, these liberties don’t dent the experience of watching Witness even a bit.
This is because there’s a clear signal that this isn’t a film that is meant to up the suspense or shock you with twists and turns. Through a straightforward story, it shows the sheer savagery that we, the collective society, are ‘witness’ to. Narratively, it has minimum struggle and maximum heart, and it never pulls its punches. The entire film is a series of quick, powerful jabs that raise many thought-provoking questions. Yes, it is message-y, and yes, it isn’t subtle. But that seems to be the whole point of the film; to make it as real as it can get, and to raise questions that are as real as they can be. To add to its credit, the film also doesn’t milk emotions out of you with a sudden tragedy — because everything that happens in the film is a tragedy on its own. There aren’t any melodramatic scenes of Parthiban that undermines the emotional intelligence of the audience; notice how the film uses a beautifully penned and composed song (‘Paravayaai Naam Parakkirom’) to tell so much about Parthiban, the love for his mother and the ideals he fights for.
Through a fantastic subplot for Shraddha Srinath and Rohini — both of them are excellent in the film — we also see how this system made by men tends to affect women more, and how some decisions of men, in a personal and professional capacity, create a long-lasting impact on the women.
Witness makes you point at yourself quite a lot. For instance, every time we come across a sloganeer/revolutionist/protester like Petharaj, it is easy to dismiss our involvement in their cause by blaming the hopelessness of such protests. But notice how the case of Parthiban would have been just one of the fifteen deaths that year had Petharaj not intervenedThe film does tell you the repercussions that come out of the set structures that this caste-obsessed and exploitative society has built for generations. It tells you that you are not always fighting to win, but you are also fighting to fight, to be allowed to raise your voice.
If you think all this will never concern you, think about this: Have you ever thought of what you would do if your landlord employs another human to clean your septic tank? Would you risk your comfortable stay at your home by antagonising your landlord? Or would you choose to be like Indrani or Parvathy, and start cleaning the rut? Witness may not be a film made with finesse, but it manages to point fingers at everyone, especially the witnesses.
Witness is currently streaming on Sony Liv