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India’s Daughter Is Problematic, But That Does Not Justify Its Ban

We watch the documentary that has polarized the nation

India’s Daughter is a slickly produced retelling of the infamous 2012 Delhi rape, but does it really help the cause of women?

delhi rape 2012 protests

So much has been said and written about India’s Daughter based upon a 2 minute trailer that we felt we had to watch the entire documentary, if only because too many people have jumped to sanction – or endorse – the film without giving it the 59 minutes 53 seconds that it deserves.

Without even getting into the quality of the BBC produced documentary, it has to be said that the Indian government’s penchant for deciding what we should watch, read, eat or drink is both a violation of democracy and an insult to our intelligence. People have the right to choose what they consume and express what they feel about the information that’s presented to them, even if the ideas and opinions are considered hurtful or incendiary by certain sections of society. That the government does not even bother to watch or read the work it bans, and seems to care more about perception than reality, only makes this worse. Critique, if you must, and there’s plenty to critique here. But an outright ban based upon some flimsy pretext is absolutely unacceptable.

What We Liked About India’s Daughter
Jyoti, Not Nirbhaya

We loved how the documentary chose to refer to the young girl by her name – Jyoti – throughout. Nirbhaya may have galvanized middle class India, but it’s worth remembering that our patriarchal culture insists on turning women into generalized symbols (Durga, Kali, Lakshmi)  instead of respecting our individuality, Now that Jyoti’s name is a matter of public record, more people should give her the respect of being her own person by using her real name.

Society, Not Individuals

Udwin does a fairly good job of pointing towards the conditions that lead to crimes against women in India. Men who believe that women are little more than commodities. The discomfort about acknowledging sex and sexuality – accused Mukesh Singh mentions how his villagers believe that kissing is amoral. The dozens of apathetic motorists who refused to come to the rescue of Jyoti and her friend Avnindra, as they lay almost naked by the side of the highway. The penury that forces millions of children like the juvenile to wash utensils and clean tables, making them prime targets for exploitation.Finally, the wide-eyed denial of co-accused Akshay’s wife, who repeats what every good Indian wife has repeated through the ages, that she believes her husband couldn’t do such a bad thing.

Accused Mukesh Singh, who oscillates between self preservation (I was driving the bus and did not participate in the rape), justification (we only wanted to teach the boy and girl a lesson for being out alone so late) and surprise (so many people get away with much bigger crimes – why am I being targeted), is perhaps the best mirror to the patriarchal thinking that leads to such crimes.  It would be easy to declare him (and the other accused) as evil and demand that they be hanged. The tougher, and more crucial task, would be to acknowledge the attitudes that have led to the prevalence of misogyny in our society and work towards changing those.

Family Matters

On the face of it, the families of Jyoti and her assaulters are not very different. Unable to make a living out of their meagre farmland, they have migrated to the capital in search of improved opportunities. But there is a whole universe of differences in their mental makeup. It is evident that Jyoti was incredibly self driven, but it is also touching to see her family’s backing of their girl’s dreams, despite economic hardships and societal pressures (Why sell your land to educate your girl, asks Jyoti’s uncle of her father). Their quiet courage is a stark contrast to the families of Mukesh and Akshay (co-accused), who appear to be living in denial.

A lot of people have complained about how the film has vilified Indian men, but the film spent as much time with supportive men (such as Jyoti’s father Badri and her tutor) as it did speaking with Mukesh and his lawyers. And in Jyoti’s mother Asha Singh, we have the real poster-woman for feminism in India – a mother who celebrates the birth of a girl child and gently questions why an innocent girl is blamed for the violence perpetuated upon her.

india rape protests

Image courtesy: Deutsche Welle
What We Did Not Like About India’s Daughter
An Incomplete Picture

Even in the retelling of a single crime, Udwin has left out several vital parties. Where is Avnindra Pandey, the friend who accompanied Jyoti on the night of the crime? Why did Udwin choose to interview only Mukesh Singh, and not Akshay, Pawan and Vinay, three of the other co-accused? (Ram Singh, another accused and Mukesh Singh’s brother, allegedly committed suicide while in custody, and the identity of the juvenile is being withheld as per Indian laws).

Women’s activist Kavita Krishnan tells Udwin that the protesters who thronged the streets in the wake of the horrific crime were also drawing attention to all the other rapes, murders,acid attacks and other acts of violence against Indian women. But Udwin fails to address the reasons that lead to these horrific crimes. That may not be the documentary’s fault per se, but we can’t help wish for a deeper and more nuanced depiction.

Oriental Bias

It is telling that the first academic voice we hear is one with a British accent – this in spite of a strong women’s movement with several learned talking heads in India. And while the interviews with Mukesh and his lawyers evoke horror and disgust, they fail to delve deeper into the circumstances that create these archaic mindsets. We also cannot ignore the irony of Udwin adopting the very patriarchy she claims to protest in the naming of the documentary. For far too long, India has ignored the individuality of its women and recognized them only as daughters and mothers and sisters – and Udwin easily falls into the same trap.

The introduction that talks about “scenes of a disturbing nature and graphic descriptions of sexual violence, it’s India’s Daughter”,  an English speaking voice-over, recreated scenes and slick production only reinforce the uncomfortable feeling that this is a film that is meant to reinforce a certain Western audience’s belief that things like this can only happen in a third world. And that is insulting.

The Women’s Day Bandwagon

BBC, which has produced the movie, had originally planned a worldwide telecast on March 8, which is celebrated across the world as International Women’s Day. After watching the movie, we feel as conflicted about its association with Women’s Day as we do about Clinique sending us a free beauty sample or VLCC offering special discounts.

Reacting to the ban on the telecast of the film by the Indian government, BBC stated that the documentary is a “revealing insight into a horrific crime that sent shock waves around the world and led to protests across India demanding changes in attitudes towards women.” That’s a great sound byte, but the documentary itself fails to provide a reliable commentary about any change in the attitudes towards women in the two years since the crime. 

Should You Watch It?

Is India’s Daughter a great documentary about Indian society, as many on social media have claimed? Absolutely not – many other films have displayed a far better understanding of Indian women and society (World Before Her comes immediately to mind). Can it be a powerful tool for change for women across the world, which Leslee Udwin declared as her motivation for making the film ? Not in its original form, but the unprecedented attention that the banning decision has brought to the movie may lead to a deeper exploration of violence against women.

So should you watch the film? Most definitely yes, because any conversation about women is better than none.

Cover image courtesy: “Delhi protests-India Raped, says one young woman’s sign” by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy)Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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