The controversy surrounding Leslee Udwin's recent BBC documentary, India's Daughter, increasingly being called the "Indian rape film," has reignited discussions about sexual violence, patriarchy and gender inequality in the world's largest democracy. The Indian government's misguided decision to ban the film is (as expected) having the opposite of the intended effect. It has left the newspaper, social media and blogosphere buzzing about the film. And even those of us who had not planned on watching it have now seen the documentary (on YouTube) and find ourselves in the awkward position of having to defend the filmmaker's right to free speech while being troubled by the myriad problems with the film itself.
Though well intentioned, Udwin's take on the issues of gender violence, and what the film dubs as India's "rape problem," does more harm than good to the greater struggle for gender equality in India. The highlight of the film is a disturbing interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the six convicted for the 2012 brutal rape and murder of 23-year-old Nirbhaya. Far from casting a contemplative reflection on the incident and its aftermath, India's Daughter feels more like a return-to-the-crime-scene special or investigative expose replete with detailed re-enactments of the incident, which in a perverse way fetishises the rape and glorifies the violent incident, tropes that are familiar to those of us who grew up watching films about India.
"Discarding these men as "monsters" is easy, but if we are hoping for any substantial change, we have to confront the painful reality that these men were not necessarily born violent."
Opening with a reminder that, "A woman is raped every 20 minutes in India," the documentary reinforces the stereotype that rape and sexual violence is a uniquely Indian problem. Without contextualizing this floating statistic within a broader understanding of gender-violence globally (for instance according to the US Department of Justice every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted or raped in the United States) the audiences are likely to walk away thinking that rape in India as a "cultural" issue that only afflicts women. Cutaways of an angry, roaring tiger that present Indian male compulsion to rape as primal, conjures up racist and colonial images of the brown native as the uncivilised savage. Rape and sexual violence are presented as character flaws that can be fixed through international intervention, absolving Indian authorities of their responsibility to address the issue, and allowing well-intentioned foreigners like Udwin to bask in the satisfaction of having "saved" Indian women from Indian men.
More devastatingly, this logic, endorsed by the documentary, further forecloses the possibility of men being victims of sexual violence. By casting a very narrow focus on female rape, we once again overlook the fact that in deeply stratified societies like India with growing inequalities along racial, class, caste, and gender lines, sexual violence becomes a tool for exercising power and control: within the military, in rural settings, in cities, in schools, of rich over poor, of one caste over another, of one religious group over another, of an older man over younger man, etc. While the film acknowledges that the rapist had a troubled childhood, it fails to make an explicit connection between the violence they were susceptible to growing up with the violence they enacted on their victims. There's a fleeting moment that alludes to how they became violent criminals when one of the rapists comments, "Beating and violence has become the story of every house." Unfortunately Udwin lets this opportunity to probe the circumstances of his life slip away.
Conversely, by further scrutinising this one high-profile incident, without unpacking the dynamics of class that are often at play in Indian criminal justice system, where affluent Indian men regularly bribe their way out of being prosecuted, the film reinforces yet another short-sighted connection between poverty and sexual violence. In trying to shed light on how the rapists see their lives in relationship to more privileged men in India, the prison psychiatrist explains that the rapist thinks, "everyone has a right to enjoyment. Big people, you know, somebody who had money, do it by payment [sic.]. We have courage, we do it by courage." Regretfully, the opportunity to unpack this loaded statement is also squandered.
"It is irresponsible of Udwin to offer such as shallow and myopic understanding of such an critical issue"
For Udwin, the rapists firmly occupy the figure of a monster driven by the unfathomable compulsion to rape. Their comments are "shocking" and their lives incomprehensible. This, too, does more harm than good. By juxtaposing the unremorseful statements of Mukesh Singh against the pain and suffering of the victim's father, Udwin's film neatly divides Indian men into the binary categories of the "predator" and "protector" of female honour, further limiting desperately needed discussions about Indian manhood.
Since the December 2012 gang rape, Indian and international media alike have portrayed Indian men either as sexual predators who prey upon helpless women or fearful guardians who are burdened with the responsibility of safeguarding their daughters or sisters. This thinking fails to account for the violence (both physical and sexual) that can take place inside the household. Home is often the initial site where a child witnesses violence being enacted. And as many feminist scholars and activists have pointed out, such logic further emboldens the instruments of patriarchy by denying Indian women of their agency, casting them as helpless, and placing expectations on women about appropriate behaviour, attire etc. From here, it is a slippery slope towards victim blaming, trivialising sexual violence, and questioning the legitimacy of the rape. Having lived in the United States for the past 20 years, and taught higher education for the past five, I have witnessed similar logic prevail in absolving universities, college campuses, and sports leagues in addressing sexual violence. Interestingly, in all of the fore-mentioned institutions women are statistically more likely to be raped than in the streets of Delhi at night.
"Nobody is such a monster that he is excluded from society. After all, any society, which has these rapists, has to take responsibility for them."
I am not naive about the problem of patriarchal oppression confronting women and sexual minorities in India. Yet I refuse to accept Udwin's premise that all Indian men are inherently more violent and, given the opportunity, more inclined to rape or control the women (or other men) in their lives. In fact, as I document in my upcoming film Mardistan (Macholand), many Indian men are living emotionally fulfilling lives, choosing to define their relationship with women through love and respect, not power and dominance. Any path to gender inequality has to be traversed through the frequently overlooked terrain of masculinity. By casting the rapist a monster, he is dehumanised. This characterisation is dangerous because it removes him, his motivation and his crimes from our world and therefore from our responsibilities. By acting on this need we (as a society) have to cast violent criminals as monsters rather than deeply flawed humans, India's Daughter limits discussions on real-world approaches we can take to prevent further violence, such as structurally re-thinking masculinity, or providing comprehensive sex education in India.
After seeing the film, a statement made by a senior Supreme Court advocate tasked with investigating the issue of sexual violence and rape stuck with me. He said, "Nobody is such a monster that he is excluded from society. After all, any society, which has these rapists, has to take responsibility for them." If there is a silver-lining in India's Daughter , it might be that the film forces us to do some soul searching and ask the tough questions, like how did these young men learn to be so violent? But Indians are not the only ones who are confronted with these questions. In the U.S., we must ask similar questions about Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who went on a shooting rampage in an elementary school and killed 20 children. Among Muslims communities in the UK, we must ask the similar questions about Mohammed Emwazi, the executioner who is frequently seen in ISIS videos. Discarding these men as "monsters" is easy, but if we are hoping for any substantial change, we have to confront the painful reality that these men were not necessarily born violent. They, in part, learned it from us.
Yes, India has a rape problem! But India's rape problem is a symptom of myriad other problems including growing class and caste inequality, abject poverty, pervasive violence, as well as the lack of comprehensive sex education, unwillingness to talk openly and honestly about what it means to be a man (or a woman).
I admire Udwin's passion that led her on this quest. I cringe when I hear that the Indian government is again relying on the rusty and ultimately ineffective axe of censorship to stifle dissenting views. Indian filmmakers, including myself, have had our fair share of run-ins with the censorship police and we stand firm alongside Udwin, and her film, and the right for the film to be seen by all Indians. But as an outsider who is privileged enough to secure the access and resources to make a documentary like India's Daughter -- which will go on to enjoy international circulation, and likely shape westerners' views on India and Indian men -- it is irresponsible of Udwin to offer such as shallow and myopic understanding of such an critical issue.