"Documentary is the creative treatment of actuality,” wrote John Grierson many years ago. Grierson was one of the earliest documentary filmmakers. Film scholar and theoretician Paul Rotha too wrote, “Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach. Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of the story-film, not in its disregard for craftsmanship, but in the purpose to which that craftsmanship is put." These definitions are not fixed in time and place, but offer a frame of reference to this day about what a documentary should adhere to.
Leslie Udwin’s 59-minute documentary India’s Daughter – The Story of Jyoti Singh is a painstakingly researched one on the gang rape of “Nirbhaya” whose real name – Jyoti Singh – comes out in the public domain for the first time, reportedly on the approval of her parents Asha and Badri Singh. The film treats reality with restraint, showing through fictionalised footage the gang rape and killing of this 23-year-old medical technologist in a Delhi bus on 16 December 2012.
But ‘reality’ is a relative term that shifts focus and impact from time to time, place to place and person to person. After a few dramatised scenes shot in dark light against a voice-over that narrates the incident, the camera shifts to Jyoti’s home in Dwarka and focusses on her grieving parents Asha and Badri, who sold their ancestral land to fund their ambitious daughter’s medical education.
These scenes with Jyoti’s parents are the most poignant sequences in the entire film that brings out the pathos of grieving parents without turning overly-soppy or sentimental. It explodes the popular myth that all uneducated and poor parents in India are biased against a girl-child and shows that there are others like Jyoti’s parents, who give her a liberal upbringing much against the advice of other members of the family.
India’s Daughter was programmed for telecast on BBC’s Channel Four, reportedly on 8 March to pay a tribute to Jyoti Singh’s courage on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Media reports however said that in the wake of the controversy surrounding it, the channel aired the documentary much before -- a day or two after it had rave reviews by NRI journalists and media persons.
Does the film really serve the purpose of paying her a tribute? Or of celebrating her memory? Let us take a closer look.
After cutting into news clips from satellite channels focussed on the student uprising and demonstrations that shook Delhi the following day and continued for weeks together, the director decides to call in one of the five surviving rapists, Mukesh Singh, to talk about the incident and record his comments. From this point on, Mukesh becomes a repeated metaphor in the entire film, coming in time and again to narrate the details of the events of that night, the brutality inflicted and sometimes to even voice his own observations on why women should be blamed for being raped.
“You cannot clap with one hand” he says, squarely placing the responsibility on young women who step out of their homes with men after 8.30 and are practically asking to be raped. “If she had not given a fight, she would not have been killed,” he says suggesting pointedly that a woman should remain quiet and accept what is coming to her instead of fighting the men. His face is deadpan, showing neither emotion nor remorse, yet constantly trying to skirt his participation in the actual act of rape.
Mukesh Singh therefore, emerges not as an interviewee but almost like a part narrator in the film, as also a visual metaphor for men who commit a heinous crime and feel no remorse for it. Perhaps more shockingly, his beliefs are echoed by the two defence lawyers M.L. Sharma and A.P. Singh who come up with extremely reactionary comments on how girls should be controlled lest they be raped.
Sharma insists that any girl/woman “should not be put on the streets just like food,” adding, “We have the best culture. There is no place for a woman in this.”
AP Singh proudly proclaims that if his daughter were to get involved in anything untoward, he would take her to his farmhouse, pour petrol on her and burn her in front of everyone. Dr Sandeep Govil, the jail psychiatrist of the rapists, says they wanted to “teach her a lesson”, a thought echoed by Mukesh himself.
Mukesh’s narration is edited, shot and structured in a way that shows him carefully steering away from taking any direct blame for the gang rape as he says, “I was the only driver and no other driver had driven the bus during the incident,” underscoring that the only time he had had sex was with a girl in his village five years back. He concedes that he has been punished because the others have been for their wrong-doing.
However, despite having foundations in strong reporting, some of it across as forced, or done with a strong ‘colonial gaze.’ There is no proof that Jyoti's friend wanted to watch an action film but she opted for Life of Pi. And even if that were true, how is this relevant to the film?
“She wanted to build a hospital in her village,” says her tutor and close friend Satyendra. He also narrates how when a small boy snatched her purse once, she helped him out with what he wanted after extracting a promise that he would never steal again. These do not really belong to the film or to its subject as they are irrelevant and superfluous. Why try to thrust nobility on a person when the focus of the film is on something else? Or, is it?
Is VAW exclusive to India?
The tone of the film often appears unmistakably anti-Indian as it conveys the impression that rape is largely an Indian crime. Why call the film India’s Daughter, (emphasis added) suggesting that such rapes are exclusive to the Indian condition. not known elsewhere? There is no reference to global incidents of rape or violence against women (VAW) across the world.
It never enforces that rape is not an “Indian” exclusive, never mind the piggy-back ride on the Jyoti Singh case to use it as a convenient peg on which to hang the International Women’s Day celebrations.
The high incidence of casteist rape, incestuous rape, marital rape, communal rape in India against the backdrop of a corrupt and tottering democracy, heightening poverty and ethnic terrorism, is neither more nor less egregious than the rape of women in Nicaragua against its backdrop of imperialist violence, or in the context of the backdrop of apartheid in South Africa, the racism-inspired violence on Afro-American women and other racially oppressed people in the United States.
It is well known that the Ku Klux Klan in the USA had used rape as a weapon of political terror. Women in Vietnam, by Arlene Eisen, shows US soldiers receiving instructions for their search-and-destroy missions, which included raping Vietnamese women phrased in political terms. Rape, as is common knowledge today, is frequently a component of the torture inflicted on women political prisoners by fascist governments and counter-revolutionary forces.
In Britain there have been a few studies on the extent of violence against women, and one survey of 1000 women found that one in 6 had been raped, one in three sexually assaulted and one in five had been raped or sexually assaulted as a child. This is just one example of rape in UK, the country to which the filmmaker belongs.
In the United States, a study of 900 women found that 44 percent had experienced one attempted rape or rape, and 20 percent had been assaulted during marriage. In some rural villages in the USA, the incidence of rape is 12 times higher than the national rate and for Native American women, sexual assault is more than twice as common as the national average according to the New York Times.(May 22, 2012).
The vast majority of these crimes go unpunished. Local police expected to prevent rapes and to respond quickly to reports of rape sometimes do not respond at all. (Care 2, Piper Hoffman, May 25, 2012). The widespread prevalence of rape in the US underscores that women and girls even from developed economies are not free from sexual assault in different degrees.
Closer home, a retrospective study of 170 cases of murdered women in Bangladesh in 1983-85 revealed that 50 percent of murders occurred within the family. Attacks directed at the stomach and genitals of pregnant women causing miscarriage or a ruptured spleen are not uncommon.
The heinous nature of all these crimes reflects the mindset of patriarchy, which actually transcends national borders and is a global scourge that has to be highlighted and tackled on priority.
A cacophony of dissonant views
The film also suffers from a lack of coherent perspective. Leela Seth says education will solve the problem. Will it really? Then how does one explain the rapes, cases of molestation, sexual harassment and domestic violence happening in educated Indian homes?
Contradictions dog the entire film, despite its proclaimed intentions to pay a tribute not only to Jyoti but also to the public uprising by both men and women following the attack on her.
Mukesh Singh’s bragging about the entire act, the two defence lawyers who are ‘educated’ and employed in the legal profession arguing for the need for girls to be controlled, and then Pramod Kushwa ADCP, Delhi, in charge of the investigation, labelling Delhi as a city that is ‘as safe as any other city in the developed world for women’ – rather than a tribute to Jyoti, all these misplaced rants seem to be repetitive statements on the deep patriarchy entrenched in Indian society, indicative of how ‘abnormal’ views are ‘normalised’ within the Indian context of rape.
In contrast, the parents of Jyoti stand out in dignity refusing to let their personal tragedy sentimentalise the film in any way.
The narrative is also dotted with comments from Maria Misra, Writer and Historian, Oxford University, Keble College. Voiced in clipped British English, she offers the “white” voice which sounds disconnected and distanced from the issue at stake, and is both abstract and abstruse. Interviews in English with other eminent persons such as Mr. Gopal Subramanian a joint author of the Verma Report published after the tragedy, despite the elucidating comments, also sound quite jarring in a film of this serious intent and content.
The only sane and relevant voices are those of Satendra and Jyoti’s parents, whose grief is something so tangible that you can almost reach out and touch it. It is only for them that the film becomes watch-worthy.
Beyond that, India’s Daughter remains a very foreign, in fact Western, glance cast at something bizarre, brutal and definitely condemnable that happened to have taken place in our country. Which leaves us with the question - what is the message of the film, really?