Thursday, March 12, 2015

A nation split over India’s Daughter


India’s new government has started a war it cannot win over India’s Daughter, a documentary by British film-maker Leslee Udwin about the horrific gang rape of a student in New Delhi in December 2012.

Last week, the film was banned in India. However, it has also created a huge sensation — partly from the very act of being banned; partly because it contains explosive and gut-wrenching testimonies from the case’s major protagonists.

Attention has been directed, in particular, to several extended sequences of reminiscence and reflection (although not contrition) from jail by Mukesh Singh, one of the rapists, to whom Ms Udwin was given access by the previous government in 2013.

On March 4, BBC telecast India’s Daughter in the United Kingdom, four days ahead of schedule, after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government made clear its objections to the work.

The network chose to ignore charges that Ms Udwin had violated numerous technical requirements (in getting permission to interview the accused in New Delhi’s Tihar jail and in making commercial use of the footage) and that the film contained material that glorified violence against women.

Behind the government’s stance, though, was the unmistakable sense that the work is an embarrassment to India and that it was using a thin carapace of legalistic reason to try to suppress a public relations disaster.

The result is that many Indians are more embarrassed about their government’s reaction than they are about the film.

After all, it is utterly futile to ban a film — a cause on which the government will now expend vast amounts of energy, much of it to the end of further publicising what it wants suppressed.

And sadly, the line that the work is an attempt to malign the country’s reputation — in the words of its Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, it was “a conspiracy to defame India” — replicates, at the level of state discourse, the general attitude of Indian society towards rape, which is that the victim in some way has invited the crime upon herself or (at best) that she should attempt to find the legal redress due to her, without blaming society for its pervasive misogyny and indulgence of the status quo.


Similar to thousands of other Indians, I saw the film on YouTube during the few hours when it was available. Although, as many people have remarked, it makes no new or surprising points about gender violence, it has been lucidly made and is fairly comprehensive.

The work carries the tremendous force of the moving image — that of the animated (or resigned) human face. Principally, these are the faces of the victim’s parents, as well as that of the assailant with whom Ms Udwin was able to record an interview.

Many people in the debate, including the Indian government, have chosen to focus on the most shocking part of the film: The passage where Singh argued that the victim, who had died from her injuries, had invited the crime upon herself by being out on the streets late at night.

However, in truth, the narrative logic of the film does not place an undue amount of emphasis on this combustible confession.

In fact, before we hear Singh speak to the camera, we encounter the victim’s parents, who recount movingly that when their daughter was born, their neighbours were surprised by their immense happiness — “as if it were a boy”.

They also recall their enormous sacrifices to support their daughter’s dream of becoming a doctor by spending, at the girl’s insistence, the money set aside for her wedding.

In these haunting moments, we feel the weight and gravity of the couple’s considered and peaceful disengagement from the age-old structures of patriarchy, and yet without any apparent rancour at the world’s iniquity.

By the time we get to the rapist’s insistence that he was acting only out of the natural logic of life (and, just as shockingly, that of the two defence lawyers that “if you take your diamond out on the street, the dog will definitely attack it”), the very nature of misogynistic bad faith and power play is exposed.

The most humble in this world, it would appear, have the strength and moral courage to disagree with ideas that the more powerful insist are natural and inescapable.

All this happens in the first seven minutes of India’s Daughter and sets the tone for the enormous diversity of explanations and rationalisations, analogies and metaphors that follow: Arguments that read the viewer as surely as the viewer reads them and, thus, vex, confound, sadden and titillate — the point of any considered work of reporting.

Ms Udwin stoutly replied, in a piece on New Delhi Television’s website, to the Indian government’s action by imploring Prime Minister Narendra Modi to overturn the ban.

“Whoever is behind this, please see the film and then come to a conclusion,” she wrote. Ms Udwin found support in many quarters, including from columnist Shobhaa De, who remarked that it should be compulsory viewing for Indians.

In recent days, many other sensible voices have articulated their problems with Ms Udwin’s film — with its politics, emphases and narrative technique (some Indian feminists have, with good reason, seen the very title as problematic).

However, by claiming that the widespread circulation of Singh’s testimony amounts to a glorification of violence against women, the government has revealed something that is true of most censorship: That it is more outraged by the representation of reality than it is by the reality itself.

Even a dignified silence on the issue of the film’s telecast and calculated self-restraint over its inevitable circulation in India would have accorded the new regime more credit.

Ms Udwin’s lapses in this matter are technical and procedural; those of the Indian government, strategic and, sadly, moral.



Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist based in New Delhi.

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