In 2012, when a young medical student was gang-raped and left for dead on the side of a road in Delhi, India, neither she nor her assailants could have predicted the furor that would follow. India has a problem of systemic, horrific violence against its women—perhaps not more than other nations, but certainly not any better, either. The preconceptions about rape, sexuality and gender were not challenged by any number of stories preceding this one; why should Jyoti Singh’s story be any different?
For whatever reason, it was. Protests shook both the capital city of Delhi—India’s "rape capital"—and outrage spread not just to the rest of India but to the rest of the world. In this climate, Leslee Udwin, a novice filmmaker, went to India to attempt to tell the story of a woman the media was beginning to call “India’s daughter.” The resulting documentary—“India’s Daughter”—is, itself, a remarkably balanced documentary, one that distinguishes itself from other accounts of sexual assault by interviewing the rapists and their team of defense lawyers. The only convicted rapist who admits to what he did was the driver, Mukesh Singh, and interviews with him take up nearly as much screentime as the interviews with Jyoti’s bereaved parents.
What immediately followed the film was controversy. As the New Yorker reports:
After clips of the Mukesh Singh interview began circulating online, the Indian government stopped the scheduled Indian broadcast of “India’s Daughter,” which was set for March 8th, International Women’s Day. On March 4th, a statement from the Indian Home Minister’s office said that the government was enforcing a ban because Udwin hadn’t secured the correct permissions to interview Singh in prison, didn’t abide by agreements to show authorities unedited versions of the interview, and because Singh’s statements are “an affront to the dignity of women.” (Udwin has since published copies of the letters of permission she received.) In another statement, the government warned that clips from the film “appear to encourage and incite violence against women.” Some supporters of the ban say that airing the Singh interview is tantamount to giving a platform to the rapist’s views; others say that the documentary paints sexual violence as an Indian issue rather than a global one, and fear that it will perpetuate a “white-savior” attitude in foreign viewers. That the government finds the film nationally embarrassing is a likely reason for the ban—members of the ruling B.J.P party have stated that the film is part of “an international conspiracy to defame India” and have protested that its release will affect tourism.
India is notorious for banning media that hint at the controversial; restricted topics include homosexuality, alternative histories of Hinduism, examinations of revered politicians, and of course, rape. In this case, as with most of the others, it speaks of cowardice. “India’s Daughter” has benefited from the publicity surrounding the decision, as illegal copies have proliferated online, but the ban effectively stopped the film from being seen by the people it is about — the poorest and most disconnected segments of the population, the ones struggling most to survive in the most populous country in the world.
Beyond the government’s actions, Udwin’s documentary has sparked a conversation that is very familiar to media criticism in 2015—the ongoing questions of who has the right to tell which kinds of stories. Udwin is an Israeli Londoner, and “India’s Daughter” entirely concerns people and events in Northern India. The best intentions in the world cannot erase the racial implications of such a power dynamic, and as “India’s Daughter” has become such an object of discussion in the press, Udwin herself has begun to sound embattled and defensive. I would characterize my own conversation with her as a bit rancorous.
Below is my conversation with Udwin; following that are a few closing thoughts from myself and Freida Pinto, who is an ambassador for “India’s Daugher.”
How did you come to this topic? I know that you are not Indian yourself.
Yes. Well, as a global citizen, and a woman who cares very deeply about the fact that we are still subordinated to men, that we are still lacking in proper respect and representation—true representation, in the world in terms of decision making, in terms of economies and in terms of being independent, and very much in terms of us being unsafe.
We know that on a daily basis, every single second, somewhere a woman or a girl is being violently abused and violated. What brought me to the topic was not so much the rape and the case and the darkness of that. It was the light and the horizon of seeing this mass mobilization of the Indian men and women. It was awe-inspiring to me, to see such mass mobilization on India’s streets fighting for my rights.
I took it personally, and I thought the least I could do—when these people were being so courageous and so committed to this issue, and facing the most ferocious government crackdown on peaceful protesters—the least I could do was make a film that would be like a megaphone for those voices and join in the protest in that way. That was my way of joining them.
So I believe this is your first documentary film, right?
Right, yes, and the first time I’ve directed as well.
How did it even occur to you to make a film about this? Were you hoping to make a film at some point already? Was India set in your sights at that point?
No, no. Not at all. I had no intentions ever of making a documentary film. But it basically took on its own volition. It became a compulsion for me. I didn’t choose to do it. And you know, I didn’t choose India. If these protests had happened in any other country, in any other part of the world, I would’ve gone there and have made that particular case of those protests.
I have been up to this point a producer of feature films. I decided to direct the film because I couldn’t afford to hire a director. But I had so much fire in my belly, I was so utterly compelled to make this film, that I had to just go and do it. Obviously I researched very thoroughly before I did it, I didn’t just step on a plane, but I had to do it and therefore by ordinary means, and the means that I had were private means, whatever I had of family savings. And I’ve used them all. [Laughs.]
Had you been to India before, or was it a completely new experience?
Many times. I’ve had a very close, loving relationship with India, which is why it hurts my heart so much that they have banned this film, you know. And that they even think of accusing me of a conspiracy to shame India—what absolute nonsense. You know, this is a conspiracy to praise India and thank India for being the only country in the world that has come out with such force and vigor and passion and tenacity for women’s rights, to try and make the world a better place for women and girls. There’s not another country on earth that has done that. I went to praise India, not to bury it. Sadly, shame has now appeared to India. But not from the film. From the ban. From the fact that they have banned a film that simply asks for a better world for women and girls. And they have banned the film without even seeing it, which is shameful. It’s so ridiculous.
A lot of the media that I read coming out of India about this film suggested a lot of wounded pride or a sense of violation about having a filmmaker who was not Indian make this story that is centered on India in this way. How did you tackle that concern, and how did you respond to that criticism?
Well, here’s how I respond. I can understand that certain segments of the Indian population — and believe me, they’re in the minority — I can understand that they have a postcolonial chip on their shoulder. This is what this is emanating from. They call me a British journalist. I am neither a journalist nor British, OK. There’s a kind of exterior that has flown in the face of facts and proper research. And that’s very sad. Because it boomerangs back on the people who are bandying these terms about. They call me a “gori.” You know what that means?
I do know what that means.
That’s a derogatory word for a white-skinned person. [Note: The word is used for anyone fair-skinned, including Indians, and is considered mild enough that it is featured in both Bollywood lyrics and “Bend It Like Beckham.”]
I’m Jewish. In my people’s history, there was a Holocaust in Germany. If I lived my life constantly keeping that paramount in my mind and letting that filter what is right and what is wrong in terms of what is happening around me, I wouldn’t move very far. I think it’s backward-looking. They have to forget about the colonial era, and whatever ax they have to grind with the Brits, let them grind it. You know, let them move on from grinding it, actually! It’s not my fight. I’m not British, OK?
Here’s the thing. Any people who refuse to introspect need to really examine their conscience as to why that is. Is your image as a country really more important than saving the lives of your women and girls? Because if that’s what you’re saying, then I’m afraid I don’t have any respect or time for that attitude. You see, I watched as MPs in the Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament, the morning after the ban were screaming like headless chickens in hysterics. “She’s decimating our tourist industry.” “She’s a conspiracy to shame India,” they were screaming that when they hadn’t even seen the film. There hadn’t even been the possibility for them to see the film because at that point it existed on one thumb drive in my purse. So you know, we shouldn’t give this any credence. We should see it as part of the change-resisting backwards-looking segments of the population. And they don’t only just exist in India. They exist all over the world. There are those people who resist change. There are those people who welcome change and look forward to it. And there are a handful of people who are actively working to change. I know which category I’d like to be in.
So let’s talk a little bit about what is the linchpin of your film, which is this very disturbing set of interviews with Mukesh, one of the convicted rapists.
Correct. Yes. I interviewed seven rapists over 31 hours. Four of them had nothing to do with this case. One of those four had raped a 5-year-old girl. I sat and interviewed him for three hours. And the reason why I interviewed others who were not involved in this particular case was because I felt the need to practice. Because I was raped when I was 18, and I’m ashamed to say I’ve kept silent about it for 20 years. I didn’t know to what degree the demons inside me that I had buried would rise up. Also, I’d never made a documentary before. I’d never interviewed people before. So I was relying on who I am and what I cared about, you know?
Why did Mukesh end up in the film and not the other two rapists?
Of the four adults who were candidates to be interviewed — because, remember, Ram Singh either committed suicide or had been murdered in the process, and there was the juvenile, whom there was no possibility of interviewing. I did meet him for 10 minutes, and there was a point in which I had been given permission from the magistrate to simply interview him, but not record him, and have his answers transcribed. And then, the magistrate changed her mind, so I couldn’t do that any longer. Now, one of these four men refused to meet me altogether – Akshay Thakur, the one with the wife and baby in the film.
And the two younger ones — whom I sat with over two sessions, for three hours each — they were still maintaining that they were not on the bus. [Here Udwin pauses, as if waiting for me to respond.] They were saying that they were at a music festival—and that music festival was proven by the court not to have existed. They were either in denial, or trying to deny, or mouthing what their lawyers were telling them to say until the appeal. So, there was absolutely no point in including them in the film. What do we gain by them saying they weren’t there? Mukesh spoke very openly and very honestly.
That’s strange that he would be honest when —
I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you why he was being honest. For the same reason. Because he and not a single one of the other rapists I spoke to held any remorse. Really, deep down, they do not believe they did anything wrong. And that is the truth. Their attitude is indignant, in fact. Everybody is doing it, so why are they made an example of? Indeed, from Mukesh’s point of view, why is he being given the death sentence, when there are worse and equally bad crimes, et cetera. That is why he spoke so honestly.
As horrible as it is, one of the things your film demonstrates well is that he has a point. There is something about this that really struck a nerve in a way that nothing else had before.
Where are the protests now about the 2-and-a-half and 5-year-old girls who were gang-raped last weekend in Delhi? Where are the protests about the 4-year-girl, who in the previous weekend, lay in the same hospital that Jyoti laid in, and had been slashed from vagina to anus by three adults who had gang-raped her? Four years old, and she wound up having a three-hour operation to have a colostomy bag fitted. Where are the protests?
What do you think? Where do you think they are?
Well, I think that people feel so hopeless about this. We must have sunk so low in terms of our moral crisis in this world. We have woefully and irresponsibly neglected to educate our children. And of course, we have a lot of people, and that has to be said, who don’t even have access of education. But putting that aside, the people who do have access to education do not have access to the right kind of education because they are educating their heads, and not their hearts.
We are responsible, as a world, to lead our children, at that crucial period between 3 and 5 years old when neuroscience tells us is the only window to cognitively modify a human being, to change attitudes, change behavior and build attitude. After that, it is all over.
How irresponsible have we been not to teach our children the value of another human being? To respect moral values. No wonder we are in the state we are in. And I saw people being so cowed by all of this that they become apathetic. It’s too vast a problem to do anything about it.
I, at least, have committed my life. I am not making any more films until I get as many countries in the world, who will be enlightened to do so, to co-op this global human rights initiative that I am spearheading and advising the U.N. Human Rights Office on, and have absolutely extraordinary visionaries as patrons on the committee. We are constructing a global human rights curriculum from day one of the entry of the child to school — on a compulsory basis. I got eight countries already, and I will not stop until I get the rest.
What are the eight countries so far?
That I will not tell you because I am saving it for the launch, when we announce it.
This ban illustrates a lot things, but at least in part it illustrates India’s desire to handle this problem of rape in a different way, and in some quarters, their own way. This education initiative sounds that it would be a top-down thing. Do you think that would ruffle feathers in the same way as the film did?
Why is this film preventing them from handling things their own way? Why are they choosing to be mutually exclusive? The ban does not illustrate that they want to handle things their own way. The ban illustrates that they don’t want to face it. We have to call a spade a spade. The ban illustrates that they are pretending it doesn't exist, or at least, they don’t want the world to think it exists there.
They don’t want to decimate their tourist industry. These are very shallow considerations, when weighed up against the violation of the human rights of women and girls, and violence that is perpetrated against them on a daily basis. A lot of countries in the world are perfectly willing to introspect when they see this film. When I show this film in America, we talk about the fact that there is one in four girls in college campuses are raped. We talk about the fact that women in America get 78 cents on the dollar for the same work that men do. We talk about the fact that whereas India has article 14 of its constitution, which confers equal rights on women, America still does not have that much respect for women in its constitution, in its law. That has been resisted, and the Equal Rights Amendment acts is still not ratified. And that is shameful.
Now, when we talk about these things, do you think an American audience can resist that? Absolutely, not. They’re responsible about it. They say, “Yes, we will hold our hands up. This is appalling. We have to do something about it.” Why can’t India just say the same? India, alone in the whole world, is simply not owning up to it.
Do you feel that your affection for India has changed?
I love India. I love India. I am infuriated by India right now. It really cracked my heart in two. I don’t like it when a section of the Indian population sends me tweets like: “White bitch, you deserve to be raped!” I don’t like it when they send me tweets threatening my life. Or send me pornography on the Internet. I don’t like that. It upsets and infuriate me, but I am not idiot enough to think this is a sign of Indians. This is a minority of people; every country has pathetic people, who simply resist change. And that is what emanates from.
And I am really hurt that the Indian government banned this film without seeing it, and refused to call me. I was on television in Delhi, begging them to call me and ask me any questions they’d like answered. They didn’t want to because they didn’t want to hear the truth. They made a big mistake in banning this film. They should simply put those aside. Those are pathetic considerations, when you consider the issues that are at the heart of this. And anyone who prefers to bury their sand rather than address an issue of this magnitude, I’m afraid lacks respect from me.
* * *
A coda, of sorts. Udwin was not very happy with me by the end of this interview. But I also spoke to one of the film’s ambassadors, the actress Freida Pinto. Meryl Streep and Dakota Fanning have also been involved with promoting the film, but I was most interested in Pinto’s inclusion. The lead actress in the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” was herself born and raised in the environs of Mumbai. In my brief conversation with Pinto, I asked her why she stood by this documentary, when many other Indians didn’t.
She explained: “I support the documentary for the truth that it comes with.” In her view, other Indians had difficulty accepting the film because of a sense of “misplaced national pride.”
“That comes into the picture when there is a certain truth, as ugly as it might be, shown to us by an outsider. But sometimes, it is actually more effective, because the outsider does come with a fresher perspective… It’s so easy to get caught up in the blame game of it all, especially when something is kind of bitter.”
Udwin, Pinto and even the rapists in “India’s Daughter” express surprise at why Jyoti Singh’s particular tragic story so rocked the nation in December 2012. Pinto offered me her theory as to why her story was the tipping point:
She was a medical student, very aspirational, much like most of the college students who were out on the street protesting. This is a woman who basically had a chance to transform her own life and her parents’. She was very ambitious, and in many ways she was already a fighter, with what she was doing in her life. People love rooting for fighters, we all know that.
This girl’s life was taken away from her, in a way that no one expected. It wasn’t a road accident, she wasn’t ill. She was doing something that was absolutely the most normal thing to do—which is watch “Life of Pi” one night. And then something as horrific as a gang rape on the bus followed that.
Yes, we hear about rapes all the time, in different parts of the country, but in terms of her being an early 20s aspirational girl, that is something we probably had not heard of on this level. Also the brutality of the crime itself got everybody’s attention. Sometimes, I wish people did not focus on the brutality of the crime, because it really does not help the problem. And the brutality of the crime, in such brutal terms, has happened many times before. I think the number one aspect was that she was an aspirational girl just like you and I.
“India’s Daughter” airs Monday on PBS at 10 p.m.