WARNING: “India’s Daughter” the BBC documentary is very hard to watch. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.
In December 2012, an Indian girl was brutally raped and murdered in Delhi. Her male companion was beaten up bad. They had been returning by bus after watching a movie. Six men cornered them during their journey home. Delhi erupted in protests and citizens clashed with the police. Two weeks later, the girl died from internal injuries and trauma. Five men and a boy were arrested a week later and charged with the crime(s). But the protests continued: laws needed revision. Some days ago, Leslee Udwin directed and produced a documentary called “India’s Daughter” for the BBC. It features interviews of one of the accused rapists and is facing a ban from the Indian Government.
Already assaulted by international and domestic instances of rape and violence, the 2012 rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless) garnered international criticism and consolidated Delhi’s perception as the ‘Rape Capital‘ of the world. Led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru College (JNU), protests raged all across India. It was as though a dam had suddenly burst and no longer was it taboo to challenge entrenched structures of patriarchy and violence against women.
It was the waves of month-long protests that caught the intrigue of Leslee Udwin. The Israeli-born, UK-based director-produced decided to make the documentary about this girl, Jyoti Singh, a 23-year old physiotherapy student. The documentary is a bone-chilling story of normalized violence against women. It is a damning account of entitled men who still expect women to endure violence without resistance. It is a heartbreaking narrative of how a kind, bright flame went out before she could spread her light.
It all begins with a narrative of the crime and interviews from Jyoti Singh’s parents. Mukesh, one of the convicted rapists, gets uninterrupted airtime to shed light on a general discomfort of Indian men upon seeing women dressed ‘inappropriately’, being out with ‘strange men’ or late at night. Defense lawyers are allowed to speak in similar veins. Mukesh narrates every detail from the day, including horrific details of the actual crime. At one point he tells Udwin that the victim should not have fought back while she was being raped. He seems surprised that everyone made such a big deal of it; there are so many worse crimes going on, he insists. Plus, hanging rapists may be a bad idea, he suggests. Next, rapists will start killing the girls. It still doesn’t occur to him that effective rape-prevention may even be a likely scenario in India. On the other hand, interwoven into his blood-curling narrative, is Jyoti’s parents talking about their daughter and the unbearable pain of having to cremate her so prematurely. The other minor storylines revolve around the families of the rapists.
But reception of ‘India’s Daughter’ has been mixed. Many have hailed it as a landmark conversation starter. An ice-breaker if you will. The Indian Government tried to get restrict its distribution. The BBC responded by releasing it prematurely. The government has managed to get the video banned and force YouTube to take it down. In fact, Leslee has fled India in fear of arrest.
But why is there so much controversy around the documentary? The first clue may lie in the style of storytelling: the documentary is a series of statements, news clippings and subtle reconstruction of actual events. Questions have been edited out – giving it the impression of an organic, overlapping narrative. The story is mostly led by Mukesh (interviewed rapist) – and then followed-up by reactions or commentaries from Jyoti’s parents, friend, Indian and English social-workers or academics. I should not have to elaborate on the political problems of allowing India’s Daughter’s story to be told by her rapist. Piyasree Dasgupta does a good job of point out how, stylistically, the documentary aimed for the sensational instead of aspiring to journalistic integrity in storytelling. Which explains this blogger’s reaction: “Shame on “India”. What a society! What a backward culture! It’s not only the uneducated and criminals, but watching these educated Indians talk about women in their Indian culture is sickening, no respect whatsoever.”
Secondly, the documentary’s oversimplified narrative hinges on ‘monsters’ and ‘victims’. Like with Kony2012, Evil is given a face and it gathers blind hate, devoid of nuanced understanding. That is acceptable for a tabloid, but not a BBC documentary set to be released on International Women’s Day. It fails to explore why the Nirbhaya case jolted India like it did; and what intelligence is to be gleaned from the identities of the rapists? For example, the social impact of having vast slums in the middle of a sprawling, urban metropolises is nowhere explored. Neither investigated is the supposed, social disapproval of ‘women out at night’. How does the ubiquitous portrayal of rape-scenes in Bollywood films affect the psyche of young, semi-literate youth? For a film that purports to tell a bigger story than the crime, the failure to investigate broad themes like the urban-rural divide, micro-aggression across these lines, gender & economic inequality and ghettoization of the poor is at least an oversight.
It is not surprising then – given it is a rapist who channels the narrative – that it emerges is misogynistic, sexist and insensitive. That it is a fringe view is never made clear. In fact, the sexism is further reinforced through the (outrageous and sexist) testimonies of the defense lawyers. There’s no attempt to balance their views. That’s where the third problem lies: it misrepresents India. The documentary is (intentionally or otherwise) transformed into a portrayal of Indian men. In his testimony, Mukesh confesses that most of them were heavily drunk that night and wanted to ‘party’. At one point, he states (presumably in reply to a question) that he hadn’t had sex in five years. The viewer is forced to reflect upon this Indian man’s needs and how he may choose to fulfill them. Such unbalanced reporting is why the world is ready to believe that the Assam Rape Festival is real. The rapists’ lawyers are called upon to speak about women’s rights. Leslee fails to include educated and progressive – or even traditionally-protective – Indian men in the film.
Fourthly, India’s Daughter’ has an interventionist approach where it feels as though an ‘outsider’ (BBC or Leslee herself) is collaborating with Indian urbanites to reflect on the crimes among the slum-dwelling Poor. Of course, it seems to say, the Poor cannot comment on their plight; we shall do it for them. As a result, the economically-disadvantaged characters speak of their pain (be it for the victim or the perpetrators), while activists, judges, academics and development workers are invited to speak about what has been / can be done to arrest this evil. Leslee even appears to lecture Indian PM Narendra Modi to “be a hero globally” and live up to his promises of Gender Equality. All of this takes ‘India’s Daughter’ dangerously close to being dubbed a ‘White Savior’ charity. And then, talking about her work, Leslee Udwin said, “My whole purpose was to give a gift of gratitude to India, to actually praise India, to single India out as a country that was exemplary in its response to this rape […]” Can you imagine her lecturing the leader of the country with the highest rape cases – Barack Obama – like this on the normalized high-school rape epidemic?
The heartbreaking case of Nirbhaya has sparked important conversations in India. There have been articles, reports, plays and even fashion photography that centers on her. India has tried to spell out its problems in many different ways. However, in the end, it is important to let India sort out its problems. No amount of shaming or guilt-trips will cure what is clearly a global, socio-economic malady. I say this because I think India has been shamed by ‘India’s Daughter’. Indian men have been shamed. Women too.
It could be that global knowledge of a rape culture is seen as more mortifying than actual instances of rape. Or it could be that a civilization with strong social institutions was humiliated for failure to protect its own. Perhaps it is a matter of national pride and the documentary’s narrative is perceived as no less than an affront, an insult to Indian culture. It is not possible for an outsider like me to understand the nature of their offense. But so inflamed is the situation that, after the release of the documentary, two alleged rapists have been beaten to death by mobs. In one case, a mob breached the walls of a prison, snatched the alleged rapist, beat him to death and hung him from a clocktower in front of thousands of flashing cameras.
In the end, ‘India’s Daughter’ has mostly exploited the cliched narrative of primitive Indian men and subjugated, objectified women to spin a riveting story out of a tragic crime. To do this, Leslee Udwin even allegedly misrepresented her intentions: she committed to filming a non-commercial documentary, but later sold it to BBC; she also hid some footage from the jail authorities, which later surfaced in the the film. In that sense, the documentary is an exploitation, a rape of India as well.
There’s a part in the documentary where a friend narrates a story from Jyoti’s (Nirbhaya’s) life. One day, at the mall, a 10-year old street urchin snatched her purse and dashed. A policeman caught him and was giving him a beating, when Jyoti intervened. Later she asked the boy why he had done what he had done. He replied that he, too, should have the right to nice clothes or to a hamburger. Moved, the girl bought him all the things he wanted and made the boy promise he would never try this again. It is ironic that the film-makers still failed to see the act in light of the Gandhian precept of “Hate the Crime, Not the Criminal”. But Jyoti – a daughter of India – had grown up with it. She could see beyond the behavior and into the intention. In Hindi / Bengali, ‘Jyoti’ means a ray of light, a beam. On her way out, this girl has lit a flame that will be difficult to put out. Her flame will burn and one day, the fire will purify age-old, ossified structures of discrimination and violence. I hope that, in death, she will become India’s savior.