In late 2012, the deadly gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey on a moving Delhi bus set off a firestorm of widespread protests in India. Her brutal assault and subsequent death exposed a culture of victim-blaming and lack of state and law enforcement protections for violence against women. Director Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter explores the case and its aftermath and was quickly banned by the Indian government after its release this year.
While the debates around this measure are important in the context of freedom of expression and legal concerns, it’s also worth exploring whether the film actually brought any of the change it aimed for.
In “India’s Daughter,” Jyoti’s parents share their memories of her with fondness and pride. In a culture where girls are undervalued, they celebrated her birth and spent what little they had to educate her. She was on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor, something virtually unheard of in the village her parents left to raise their family in Delhi. These accounts humanize Jyoti, rather than seeing her merely as a rape ‘victim.’ But as her parents and her tutor recount her virtues, I can’t help but wonder if the narrative would have evoked less support if it would have been any other ‘kind’ of girl.
Jyoti had reportedly told her parents she wanted to go and watch a movie because she wouldn’t get the chance once her internship began. But what if she had been more like rape survivor Suzette Jordan, who passed away this year – a woman who enjoyed going to nightclubs without feeling the need to justify her right to pleasure?
Like Suzette, Jyoti had reported her rape, defying the culture of shame that ‘good girls’ are supposed to be a part of. One of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, said in his interview that they expected she would be too ashamed to tell anyone about the attack.
It may not have been Udwin’s intention, but India’s Daughter fails to look beyond how society and her family perceived Jyoti, painting a sadly one-dimensional picture of her.
The director said she regretted that Jyoti’s friends did not agree to talk and share more about her on camera. Still, she could have brought in the voices of other rape survivors in India who have been publicly asserting their individuality beyond being someone’s daughter, sister, mother.
Udwin claims the title India’s Daughter was simply a term used by the Indian press, not a patriarchal statement. But just before the end credits roll, the film once again uses the term ‘the rape of India’s daughter.’
If Udwin intended for that to be sarcastic in any way, I didn’t detect it.
Her attempts at humanizing Jyoti instead give way to victimization by the cinematography of an eerie night, blood on the roads and a funeral pyre. These images – reminiscent of news reports of sexual violence, illustrated with stricken, crying women hiding their faces – only add to the notion of women as weak creatures to be either exploited or pitied. In one scene, the tutor seems to commend that Jyoti chose to watch Life of Pi, instead of an average action movie. But even that is followed by the visual of a snarling tiger from the film, a warning saying, perhaps, that Jyoti’s choices were immaterial in the face of circumstances.
Together with the background score, all this emphasizes the predator-prey relationship, which, once again places men and women in the doer and done upon hierarchy. The dramatic reconstruction India’s Daughter provides of an already devastating incident takes away from the seriousness of the issue and encourages vicarious interest in the film.
The film is replete with misogynist statements from the rapists and their defense lawyers. Socio-political figures like Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit and NGO founder Amod Kanth discuss, respectively, how girls are undervalued and the circumstances in which juvenile delinquents often grow up. But in light of past instances (of which Udwin probably knew about and was critical of) when Dixit resorted to victim-blaming and Kanth opposed decriminalizing homosexuality, their credibility as people with an understanding of gender-based violence seems compromised.
The intention of ‘holding a mirror to society’ to show that the criminals’ thoughts are commonplace may backfire here. Believe me, India’s progressive community is already well aware of the prevalence of such misogyny. But it’s those misogynists who consider themselves members of ‘civilized’ society that won’t see the coincidence of their own views and the rapist’s. And since India’s Daughter does not provide a strong and timely counterpoint, so many are likely to miss the condemnation inherent in the film.
The rapist sounds dangerously ‘logical’ when saying he had the right to ask Jyoti why she was out with a boy, that they won’t have assaulted her like they did if she had not resisted. The audience isn’t stupid, but it has its biases. And if anyone intends to challenge those, they’ll need a hard shaking.
India’s Daughter takes its viewer to the time before the rape, when the rapist says he and his friends wanted to party, to enjoy. When he says that they may not have money like the rich folk, but they have ‘courage,’ I can see the frustration of being born in an underprivileged class. I can see how their sense of superiority is restored by committing violence against women. I can see the ‘logic’, however twisted, of shifting the inferiority they feel to a group they consider to be even lower in status: women. These men feel it’s only by curtailing women’s rights to enjoyment that they can exercise their own. But this need to establish masculine power over women and the anger against women – who dare to express their desires and are ready to face the ‘risks’ presented by the existence of such men – isn’t restricted to men of a certain class, as shown in the film.
When the camera goes into the slums and meets the rapists’ families, there is no clear line drawn to say that what might be one explanation of their crime is not the same as being justification, as not all people in the same situation would behave similarly. Zooming in on their poverty, too, makes it appear like just the poor commit such crimes.
One activist speaks for a short duration and there is no voice at all belonging to other young women in the city. Both the Oxford historian’s analysis and the Indian activist’s statements are recorded in English, which renders them even more ineffective as staunch opposition to the chauvinism expressed in Hindi. There is no introspection on how these views came to be in the lawyers’ case; and in the case of the rapists, it stops at linking their crime to growing up in poverty and witnessing everyday violence.
To be sure, films have their inherent limitations – of time, resources and the need to stick to focus areas – but then India’s Daughter cannot become the premise for a global campaign that wants to end gender inequality. Its ‘exclusive’ feature may be the rapist’s interview, but the film gives no new information, insight or inspiration. It’s just another reminder to keep the fight against sexual violence going on.
But by not looking deeper into how a traditionally patriarchal culture perpetuates misogyny, the film leaves viewers feeling like this is less of a global crisis and more about one family’s daughter or one country’s problem.