Caen, France – I just finished watching “India’s daughter,” one of the best documentaries I have seen so far, strong, well scripted and well balanced – at least as far as I am concerned. Needless to say that I relived those few horrific days & the anger and helplessness I felt. Then hope and pride as the civil society in India took to streets spontaneously demanding justice, undeterred by the tear gas & the water cannons used by a police force ‘just doing their duties’. I firmly believe that the subsequent changes made in the Indian Penal Code, promising a slightly better world for women was a direct and palpable result of that impressive protest from the civil society.
In a recent interview, Director Leslee Udwin said that it was not so much the incident as the extemporaneous demonstration of outrage and protest of the civil society that prompted her to make the film because presumably it made her realize that the Indian society was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to the evil that has existed in the Indian society for a long time now.
The horrific incident was a catalyst, albeit a sad one, for making a whole country realizes the extent and the gravity of the culture of violence against women.
What really impressed me about the film is its neutrality. Director Leslee Udwin recounts the story of ‘Nirbhaya’ and its aftermath in a very dispassionate way. I think that the film is an eye opener in many respects. Not about the incidents per se – the Indian media made sure that each gruesome detail was made public in the days that followed the incident, and throughout the fast track trial of the convicts. Not the aspirations of Jyoti and the sacrifice made by her family, especially her father, to enable her achieve her dream.
What we did not totally perceive, however, is the dignity of the grief of her parents and their helpless acceptance of the terrible blow, of the end of a beautiful dream they had shared with their daughter. We knew next to nothing about the sorrow of the parents of the convicts awaiting their sentence in jail, getting square meals every day while the families starved in their remote villages; about the naïve faith of the wife of one of the accused who resolutely refuses to believe that her husband could have committed the atrocious crimes and wonders about her fate and that of her child in the absence of her husband.
Leslee Udwin, much to the outrage of a certain section of the Indian population, devoted a large section of the film to Mukesh Singh, one of the convicts already sentenced to death by the Delhi high court. We see a very ordinary man talking wooden faced to the camera, expounding on his views about women and how they should behave. Relating the horrible incident with utter calm and precision, with no sign of apparent remorse. Proclaiming that the girl should not have been out at that hour (nine pm in a metropolis like Delhi!) and should not have resisted so much – otherwise she could well have been alive today. Telling the world that he had no idea about the girl – who she was, where she came from, what her story was. She was a random victim picked up to satiate the beastly appetites of a gang on a cold December evening.
It is true that I was shocked to witness the equanimity of this criminal. At times I even felt that he was really not totally aware of what they had done. At other times I could hear him repeating the lines fed to him by his defense lawyers. It is equally true that I can, to a certain extent, understand the outrage in India when an excerpt of the interview with Mukesh Singh was made public.
What I can’t understand is the reason for the outrage – why, instead of blaming the system that produces criminals like Mukesh, a section of the Indian public decided to shoot the messenger, read the Director, of the documentary. The social media was inundated with insults and accusations. The conspiracy theorists even put forward the hypothesis of BBC, and therefore United Kingdom, trying to undermine India in the eyes of the world. This was followed by an uncouth and ridiculous circus in the political and administrative machinery, a wild undignified scramble to pin blame on one another, a parliamentary enquiry and the subsequent banning of the film in India.
Make no mistake; I have NO sympathy for Mukesh Singh and I think he deserves the toughest punishment that the legal system in India can deliver. If the death sentence is validated by the Supreme Court, I shall not applaud it because I am against death sentences anywhere in the world, but I shall accept it.
But the thing that scared me most in the documentary was the public declarations made by the two defense lawyers, M.L. Sharma and A. P. Singh and the fact that there was NO outrage in India about that. Not at the time, though a lot of voices have now risen in protest.
One of them goes on air describing what he would do any female member of the family who went out with an “unknown” man – “I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
What shocked me was the testimony by the other lawyer (in execrable English) where he compares women to flowers, diamonds and what have you, and finishes by asserting that India “has the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.”
These are the phrases that the world would hear and very probably remember – the modern lawyers, representatives of the modern Indian society & “rule of law,” something Indians never fail to underline, expressing openly their disdain and disrespect for women, boldly, without any qualms. I do not for a moment believe that these lawyers are doing their bit to get their clients off the death row. Nobody watching the film will doubt their sincerity – these guys actually believe what they are saying. This is the truth about modern India, about those who claim to uphold law & justice.
In the reigning cacophony, I did not hear one single word about the little incidents that are cleverly woven into the main narrative that provides pointers to the current state of affairs in India. The huge urban migration, the tough life in the metropolitan cities, the constant lure of a glittering life offered up by the media, the commodification of women everywhere, starting from billboards to cinema halls, the feeling of frustration and anger of men left on the roadside by the growing Indian economy helplessly watching the increasing participation & success of women.
The incident related by Jyoti’s friend about the little boy who snatched her purse one day in a busy market and boldly explained his behavior saying that he too wants good clothes & shoes, he too wants to eat burgers speaks volumes about the mind set of men, young and not so young, in urban India. The concept of honor killings, boldly proclaimed by lawyer A.P. Singh brings out into open the commonest motivation of violence against women in rural India. These background events, deftly woven into the main narrative are the real eye openers, totally ignored not only by those vociferously criticizing Leslee Udwin.
The decision to ban the film in India is what is making India and the loud voices of protesting Indians ridiculous in the eyes of the world. Not the film, which has gone totally viral now. Those who wouldn’t probably have even been aware of the film or the incident are rushing to view it now, in the numerous links posted on the Internet. The fact that NDTV showed a blank screen throughout the duration of the film on the day it was scheduled to be aired proves that for once, at least one part of the media is not in cahoots with the Mandarins sitting in the different offices in New Delhi.
If there was ONE way by which India could publicize its deep misogynistic culture, its blatant undermining of women – this is IT – banning the film. On the pretext that “the film is likely to cause a breach of law and order.”
Really? In what way? That, of course, remains unexplained.
Once again this hubbub and the subsequent decision proves something about Indians all over again – as a nation, we are incapable of facing criticism, whatever may be the domain. Even after 68 years of independence, our self-confidence is almost non-existent. Our honor is fragile and artificial and crumbles regularly and constantly at the slightest provocation, real or imaginary. Collectively we are unable to face the truth, and this has been proved time and again through incidents, big and small, involving other countries and nations.
I am seething with anger. I am ashamed of my fellow countrymen defending the arbitrary decision of the court to ban the documentary. I am outraged that other than a few feeble attempts on the social media, there has been no national protest against the autocratic behavior of a minority trying to strangle freedom of expression. And we pride ourselves as the largest democracy of the world!
Everyone should see this film. Share it on your pages, talk about it, and let your children watch it. Let us protest against the Mandarins who want to smother truth. Because truth is what we need today. The truth that is being told by Mukesh, the truth that comes out of the vile mouths of the lawyers as well as the social activists who brutally and precisely analyze the current state of the Indian society. Let it be shown in the slums like it has already been done in the slum where the three rapists lived. Let it be shown in schools and colleges and all educational institutions. Let there be a collective realization of the kind of society we live in today.
Because, let us not forget for an instant that violence against women (VAW) is not confined to India – it is a worldwide phenomenon. The global statics show that not a single country in the world is exempt from this social evil that takes different forms in different societies. Women and men all over the world are fighting VAW every day. A documentary like “India’s Daughter” can be a powerful tool for fighting VAW in India. I just hope that it will be used for that soon.