Earlier this week BBC released Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter: the Story of Jyoti Singh’ as a part of their Storyville series. This film, which navigates the choppy waters of the Delhi Gang Rape from December 2012, was banned from being shown in India. It is the first time a filmmaker has revisited the event, and many feel that to even make this documentary trivializes what happened. The ensuing debate in Parliament and online gave rise to angry tweets and the hashtag #NirbhayaInsulted.
Getting passed the initial disgust at watching this documentary, which interviewed one of the convicted rapists along with Jyoti’s parents, I was left disappointed with the final product. It seemed to me that the film was creating a false dichotomy between what was the ‘good’ side, the side where Jyoti’s parents sat crying and where all the memorials to her where, and the ‘bad’ side where the defense lawyers and rapists where. But rape as we know it isn’t just a monstrous act perpetrated by monsters — rapists are extremely normal people who are conduits for their conditioning.
The documentary begins with a discussion of son preference and the martyrization of Jyoti. It’s the norm still to treasure boys and neglect girls in India, but Jyoti’s parents tell us that she broke the mold for them. They sold their ancestral land to finance her schooling. Her friend Satendra talks about how she would always say ‘A girl can do anything’ and ‘The first and biggest problem in India is mentality,’ foreshadowing the major hurdles of the documentary. Jyoti, in memory, was the perfect feminist and she worked hard. She was a saint in every way.
There’s an interesting back and forth between using Jyoti’s name everywhere in this documentary and the typical trend in India of calling her ‘Nirbhaya,’ or ‘fearless.’ Jyoti’s parents and friends are trying very hard to root her in reality — she was the girl who wouldn’t let a cop beat a street urchin who tried to steal her bag — rather than give her entirely over to the movement of young Indians who hold her up as a symbol. But even within that the focus in the documentary returns to the candles lit for her and the memorials to her. She is both a daughter and a symbol. And both are divine.
In order to give both sides of the story, one of the convicted rapists, Mukesh Singh, was interviewed at length as were his defense lawyers. Even three years after they lost their case, they still held on to a tired and toxic misogyny. Mukesh Singh said things like ‘You can’t clap with only one hand…a girl is more responsible for rape than a boy is.’ His lawyer, M. L Sharma called women, alternatingly, flowers and gems that must be protected. He also went on to say ‘[India] has the best culture in the world. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.’
These interviews felt almost cartoonish in their backwardsness and were exhausting to watch. And yet it’s terrifying to think that their nonsense statements could be pushed so far — the Delhi Gang Rape of 2012, with its sheer brutality and gruesomeness, went beyond rape. It was entirely about destruction and punishment.
I was nervous at first about the idea of giving rapists a platform to speak. Mukesh Singh was also reportedly paid Rs. 40000 for his time. But after hearing him and being repulsed by it, I wonder if others watching also were. Possibly people can hear their own sexism quoted back to them by a rapist and may take steps to correct their thinking. Yet, it wasn’t just the rapists speaking like this, it was also their lawyers. Would a person seeing a successful, educated lawyer proselytizing dangerous sexism be repulsed? Or would they find it justified their thinking?
The film focuses on the back and forth between the two parties and the contrasts in their statements. It attempts to talk about the social conditioning of the men, making their outlandish statements out to be a product of their environment. The film also alludes to the Bihari backgrounds of two of the men and their poverty as a reason why they acted without remorse. It grasps at straws and variables and simplistic feminist arguments to offer up a reason why the rape happened.
And perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film was the need to lay blame elsewhere. At what point does social conditioning stop being an issue? When can we say that a man, who is taught his whole life that women are nothing, is supposed to do the exact opposite of what he knows? The head of Pune-based NGO Prayas, Amod Kanth, claims that the unnamed juvenile rapist, who is believed to be the most vicious of the lot, was ‘like millions of other Indian children trying to survive.’
There is a lot of nuance in this argument, but I felt it was completely dwarfed by misery porn on the other side — most if not all the times Jyoti’s parents were interviewed her mother was crying and her father was lapsing into poetic reflection. Far be it from me to take issue with their feelings and statements, but it seems Udwin is creating a very obvious dichotomy of good and evil and you know exactly which side you’re supposed to be on.
Any gray area in the discussion comes out of the political leaders interviewed. The authors of the Verma Report, the collection of suggestions created in the aftermath of the Delhi Gang Rape to deal with obvious issues within India’s rape policies, spoke on the need for education and rehabilitation. Senior Advocate Gopal Subramanian said ‘Nobody is a monster that he is excluded from society. After all, any society that has these rapists has to take responsibility for them.’ Yet these arguments feel weak and superficial when lined up against the emotional extremes of the black and white sides.
In India, various parliamentary members and celebrities took the floor to challenge the decision to ban the documentary from being shown. As Javed Akhtar put it, ‘It is good this documentary was made. Millions of men will realize they think like a rapist. And if this offends them they must change.’ Kirron Kher also passionately spoke about the importance of disallowing future rapes by fostering education on women’s rights. The banning of this film probably effectively ensured that many watched it, though perhaps only the already political and feminist.
Ultimately, the documentary is important because it reminds us in a ‘lest we forget’ monument sort of way. The calls to action are weak — how many times can an intellectual tell us that ‘education’ is the only way forward? — and the argument is stacked against the viewer, but it still has its place. Watching it feels like being hit by a truck, and the realization that one of the rapists will be released in December is enough to put you in the fetal position. It’s rough and unbalanced, and yet it’s an important mirror that needs to be held up: If even after three years in prison and being sentenced to death for his actions, a man can still turn around and blame a dead girl, there is so much more to be done.