Leslee Udwin’s voice was hoarse when she said she hadn’t slept for four days. She looked tired. With characteristic short-sightedness, the Indian government had effectively imposed a temporary ban on her now controversial film, India’s Daughter, and she was working hard, “doing the media", to get the ban revoked.

The documentary was to debut on 8 March, International Women’s Day, to mark the launch of Plan International’s global advocacy campaign to stop violence against women and girls. On 6 March, I was among nearly 100 people packed in the basement hall of a London law firm hosting a screening followed by a panel discussion. When Udwin was introduced, she said, “I may be hoarse, but I won’t be gagged," and she was cheered by the audience.

Some of us had already seen the film. The court order in India had generated vast publicity, beyond the dreams of the producers, and to capitalize on that, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) had brought the screening forward by four days. I had already written about the film on Mint’s website, arguing that while the film was flawed, it should not have been banned.

Leslee Udwin. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters
Leslee Udwin. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

There is nothing wrong when a foreigner makes a film showing India’s glaring failings. But there is something odd with a discussion about such a film in London, where the panel looks overwhelmingly white. Britain has many prominent Asian women’s rights activists, and not seeking them out as panellists reinforced the grievance many in India have felt, of how patronizing the whole exercise has been.

In her opening remarks, Udwin said she was going to appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She said she was certain he would appreciate what she was trying to do with the film. Since Modi has his Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save, and educate, the girl child) campaign, surely he would listen and revoke the decision to ban the film.

I was astonished by the implicit naïveté. Sheena Sumaria is a British-Asian film-maker who has, with her sister Sonum, made a remarkable documentary, Even The Crows: A Divided Gujarat (2014), about the Gujarat riots, focusing on the murders of Ehsan Jafri and the Dawood family. She rose to ask about the basis of Udwin’s optimism, given that there were dozens of cases of rape and violence against Muslim women in 2002, when Modi was the chief minister there. Udwin shut her eyes, shook her head and said: “Darling, that was a long time ago. The past is past; we should think about the future. I can’t not do anything about what had happened."

‘India’s Daughter’ is a film serious in intent about a serious issue. But it glosses over too many nuances. It reveals much that we know.

The discussion that followed had Maria Misra, the Oxford academic who explains India to the uninitiated several times in India’s Daughter, making generalizations that did not represent the reality. She called the December 2012 protests India’s “1968 moment", using a chic, Western metaphor to describe an entirely different phenomenon in India, one which does disservice both to 1968 and 2012. In 1968, students marched across the Western world for a grab-bag of causes which included opposition to the war in Vietnam, support for revolutions in Latin America, opposition to racism in the US, and for personal sexual freedoms. The 2012 protest in India was far more precise and focused on one specific issue.

A more intelligent film would have explored why this incident—and not, for example, the rape and murder of a mother and daughter from a Dalit caste in Maharashtra, in 2006—roused public opinion. But India’s Daughter is not that film.

Misra said that tourism in India “tanked" after 2012, which she implied was because of the rape. Alistair MacDonald, chairman of the Bar Council, added that a finance minister had said that the impact on tourism would be in “billions". Indeed, last year finance minister Arun Jaitley did refer to the rape as “one small incident" which could adversely affect tourism, and last week Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi echoed that point in Parliament with regard to Udwin’s documentary.

To be sure, single women, travelling alone or in groups, changed their travel plans. There have indeed been cases of rape of foreign tourists in India; reports of brutal incidents of rape involving Indian women have also continued. But according to the Union ministry of tourism, in 2012, the year of the Delhi rape, 6.58 million foreign tourists arrived in India. In 2013, the figure went up to 6.97 million, an increase of 5.9%. And provisional data for 2014 (up to June) showed a 5.2% increase, and a total of 3.54 million. What this shows is not that rape doesn’t matter, but that building narratives around anecdotal evidence is not a sound idea.

India remains unsafe for many women even if tourism figures rise.

India’s Daughter is a film serious in intent about a serious issue. But it glosses over too many nuances. It reveals much that we know; in showing how callous rape convict Mukesh Singh and his two defence lawyers appear to be, the film reminds us how widespread such opinions are among many Indians, including those with authority.

Udwin may have a case to answer about whether she followed all the processes properly, but that doesn’t make India’s processes right, given its commitment to democracy. Yes, the film hurts India’s image abroad, because it shows India’s underbelly, but to fix that India needs to address the reality. Unfortunately, the mindless ban pushes all those questions under the carpet.

Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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