What I learned from watching 'India's Daughter,' the banned rape documentary
Chances are you’ve heard about British filmmaker Leslee Udwin’s controversial documentary, India’s Daughter. After getting to watch the film myself, I can attest to its powerful and shocking portrayal of current-day India. Warning that the topics about to be discussed are not easy.
India’s Daughter tells the story of Jyoti Singh’s brutal 2012 gang rape at the hands of six men on a bus in Delhi. The rape made international headlines, spotlighting the prevalent issue of sexual assault in India — Jyoti eventually died from injuries that were a result of the attack. The film was originally meant to be broadcast in both India and the UK on International Women’s Day, but was banned in India with the government claiming several reasons—one being that the content would incite widespread violence against women. As the New York Times stated, “Sexual violence is a highly charged topic in India, and though the vast majority here had not yet seen the film . . . it was nonetheless the subject of stormy debate among activists and public intellectuals.”
To India’s ire, the UK responded to the film’s ban by bringing up its own premiere date to March 4 and, on March 9, the film made its US debut with the help of Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto. I’m thankful for these efforts as this is a film that should never have been banned in the first place. Indeed, India’s Daughter is powerful on a gut-level; at least once I felt physically ill thinking of what Jyoti must have gone through.
By banning the film, the Indian government has only succeeded in continuing a long tradition of silencing victim’s stories in a cloud of shame and guilt, made even worse with the shaky excuse of protecting women.
While Udwin’s filmmaking seems slightly misguided at times, particularly in the use of slow motion camera-work, she has offered a multitude of voices from each side of the story. In the absence of Jyoti’s own voice, we have those of her parents. Asha and Badri Singh glow as they recall their daughter’s passion for life and independent spirit: it was Jyoti’s idea to use the money traditionally saved for her wedding to help fund her education, to cover the rest her parents sold their ancestral land and Jyoti worked the nightshift at a local call center.
Yet Kavita Krishnan, an activist who appears in the documentary, has since criticized the film for a one-dimensional portrayal of Jyoti as saint-like and all poor men as misogynistic killers. In my opinion, positions such as this are looking for criticism in the wrong place. Nothing Jyoti had done in the past would change what happened to her on the day she was attacked, just as nothing her attackers had done in their past would clean her blood from their hands.
The film points out a general apathy that seems spread across all levels of society. Raj Kumar, the patrolman who stumbled upon Jyoti after the attack, explains how visibly hurt she was. Yet when he yelled for help from the increasing crowd of bystanders, not one person stepped forward.
It was only at the end of the film where I felt Udwin left unanswered questions. Jyoti’s mother sobs before the camera, a lit candle drifts on the current of a river; but where is the call to action? What are the next steps? The film shows how protests in reaction to the extreme brutality of Jyoti’s murder raged for over a month. Spurred into action, the government arrested the perpetrators and set up a rape review committee to suggest improvements to the criminal law.
The resulting Verma Report, a 650-page document, is thorough and impressive. But what about us? What can we do to spark change?
As the film suggests, education is key to changing how society thinks about women—but we need to go one step further and demand a complete re-education. Udwin’s film is not anti-India; the India that produced the men who brutally raped and murdered is also the India responsible for the bright young woman who wanted to get an education and give back to her community. What the film does reveal is the depth and scope of gender inequality in society, how this deeply ingrained misogyny is literally killing the women of our future.
The problem goes beyond the men’s actions—it’s a problem of media, culturally ingrained misogyny and class issues.
The film takes place in India, but its predicament is one that all cities have dealt with at different times and in varying degrees: how does a society reconcile the traditions of the past with the modernization of the present? Women are often the battleground of these two paths, traditionally bound to the home but with opportunities of education and a better life just outside their front doors. Jyoti’s stunted legacy reveals the worst case scenario—a woman extinguished for taking control of her future—but the ripple effect of her death represents humankind’s true potential for meaningful change.
India should be applauded for its quick reaction to the protests, but by censoring the film, the government has proven that it is missing the point. Through the many holes of their reasoning, the motive behind the ban is clear: India’s Daughter pulls back the curtain to reveal an ugly truth. With the refusal of the film’s screening, Jyoti has been silenced twice over: once by her murderers and again by her government. Thankfully, India’s ban has backfired: using bedsheets and hidden rooftops, women such as Ketan Dixit have been hosting clandestine screenings. It is up to each of us to find our own way of facing the inequality in society head on— it is only together that we can ensure Jyoti’s voice rings clear for the world to hear.
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