'India's Daughter' Is Flawed In Significant Ways

05/03/2015 9:13 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images
Leslee Udwin (R), director of the documentary 'India's Daughter', gestures during a press conference in New Delhi on March 3, 2015. One of the men convicted of the gang-rape and murder of an Indian student that shocked the world has said he blames the victim for 'roaming around at night'. The comments are made in a documentary to be screened on International Women's Day. AFP PHOTO / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

Indians who managed to watch the documentary, India's Daughter, before it was summarily removed from YouTube following a restraining order, may have been profoundly disturbed by what they saw and heard, but probably would not have been too surprised.

Early on in the film, a voiceover informs the viewer that a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. The reason behind this, it goes on to infer, is the collective mindset that allows casual everyday sexism to pervade our private, public and professional spheres.

This is hardly news to us, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, as sexism, in varying degrees, is present in every society. In India, many of us have heard, experienced, seen and protested against sexism and sex offences in some form or the other. So the gamut of opinions expressed by the characters featured in India's Daughter does not shock so much as shames us.

After the gangrape of Nirbhaya on 16 December 2012, whose story is the focus of the movie, such opinions have been repeated, many times over, by politicians, legal experts, spiritual gurus, and ordinary citizens, in different contexts. Far too many to name individually, a section of these people have stated, time and again, that it is women who are to be held responsible for inciting men to commit acts of sexual violence by their ways of dressing, behaving, or simply, being. Equally, masses across India have raised their voices against such regressive ideas.

India's Daughter, however, puts in a touch of originality here, at the risk of being pernicious. It allows Mukesh Singh, one of the convicted perpetrators, to have his say on camera. Awaiting in prison the apex court's decision on the death penalty given to him, Singh does not waste any time to extol what he and his companions have done. His lawyers, too, echo his belief that women who go out late, with men unrelated to them, ought to be taught a 'lesson'. The amount of footage devoted to these men is in keeping with the film's overall tendency to be gimmicky, mostly in very poor taste--such as the close-up on the face of the growling tiger from Life of Pi, the last film Nirbhaya had watched before she was attacked--given the gravity of its subject.

We do not know what filmmaker Leslee Udwin was expecting, but instead of remorse and a plea for clemency, she heard arrogance and self-justification, the banality of evil speaking back to her. If this interview was intended to put a human face to patriarchy, it merely reinforced stereotypes: rapists are men living on the edge and attack women who provoke them. And it did not necessarily boost the morales of those who have begun to overcome fear and stigma to break their silence on crimes they, or people close to them, have suffered.

In reality, rape is a gender neutral crime. (The title of the film, which intends to speak about the crime rather than only a specific instance of it, could be seen as misleading, if not patriarchal!) It happens everywhere in the world not only in India, and a vast majority of unreported instances of rape are believed to take place within the confines of home, among people who know each other well. People from the LGBT community, prison inmates, children as young as a few months, are vulnerable to it. These incidents occur across societies, not excepting the so-called civilized ones who gawk with horror at the statistics that countries like India throw up for criminal offences.

By focusing closely on a sub-set of the problem, India's Daughter ends up feeding into clichés of the country, all of them entirely true, but also woefully selective. By rising to the bait and stopping the telecast instead of allowing a public debate on the movie, the Indian State has also behaved in line with its ongoing agenda of cleaning up the polity of communities, speech, and ways of expression it does not approve.


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