The documentary on Delhi gang-rape shows how the views of our society are remarkably similar to those of convict Mukesh Singh
I have now seen India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin’s film, which has already gained notoriety without it being screened to a mass audience. As Indian government officials drummed up publicity for the film in a way that was beyond the wildest imagination of any marketing executive—calling for its global ban, complaining about defaming India, worrying about impact on tourist dollars—the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) brought forward its telecast by four days, to capitalize on the curiosity the film has aroused worldwide.
If you are Indian, know India well, or are concerned about the routine and widespread violence against women, the film tells you nothing that you don’t already know. It focuses on one specific case—the brutal rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012—and tries to build a grand narrative about the country’s “rape culture", as activist Kavita Krishnan characterizes it in the film. It provides almost no wider context to rape—there are almost no statistics of the number of such cases, nor a reference to the Mathura case (although it is a film dealing with the law and talks to defence lawyers, the police, and two members of the Justice Verma panel), and how the rape law has evolved. We do not hear about other horrific cases that preceded the December 2012 incident that took place on a moving bus, including the many allegations of custodial rape, or allegations involving the armed forces, or the far more common but rarely-reported incidents of spousal rape, or rape by someone known to the woman. There is an unsubstantiated claim by one of the defence lawyers alleging that half the parliamentarians have rape or murder charges against them, without providing statistics or context. And curiously, religious cult leaders facing rape allegations like Asaram are spared embarrassment, and so are politicians.
If the film set out to assert that rape is an epidemic in India, then showing its spread across sectors, classes, religions, and regions was essential—that would have indicated the gravity of the problem. It would have also explained why the issue mattered so much to so many Indians in the winter of 2012 when the fury over one case turned into a mass upsurge that the politicians in Delhi, and indeed the entire ruling class, simply couldn’t understand. To explain the context, the film relies on Maria Misra, an Oxford historian, to interpret India and its nuanced debates on gender. Misra appears often in the film to “mansplain" India, as it were, making sweeping generalizations, such as talking about the “stigma" of reporting rape (as though it is a uniquely Indian phenomenon) or implying that after this rape, the stigma has somehow disappeared. (Violent rape has continued since—think of the 2013 Shakti Mill case in Mumbai, or the Bangalore child rape case in 2014, or the rape of a disabled woman in Rohtak this year).
This is a serious film about a grave crime, but there is unintended comic relief in the form of the two defence lawyers. The rape accused have the right to a fair trial, but the two lawyers are almost like caricatures, mouthing inane, sexist remarks, and arguably damaging the case of their clients.
And that brings me to the film’s marketing. There are of course several scenes of interviews with Mukesh Singh, one of the men convicted in the case, whose more sensational remarks have already been given wide play in the Indian media. Getting to interview him has indeed been a scoop, but by focusing on marketing those remarks as the core of the film, it diverts attention from the far more important things being said by Justice Leila Seth, for example, or the exceptional bravery and decency of the Delhi rape victim’s parents.
Another claim the film-makers have made is that the film has an educational or campaigning purpose. Articles I read suggested that the film would show statistics of sexual violence in other countries—that this wasn’t about singling out India. At least in the version shown on BBC last night, I did not see any such statistics, so if you were a Martian who suddenly saw the film, you’d think rape is a big problem in India (not elsewhere) and in India this is the single-most important case, and that the problem has grown in the past two decades.
And yet the film should not be banned. There is a sound argument against showing the film in India while the appeals process is pending so as not to prejudice the appeals and a potential mercy petition. But officials who want to ban it aren’t guided by legal niceties; they’ve clothed themselves in the tricolour and are complaining about the defamation of India, among other things. The film does not criticize the judiciary, so there is no potential contempt of court, and it takes at face value the claims a police officer makes, that Delhi is a safe city for women. Nor does it challenge India’s politicians.
The real danger, as some feminists have pointed out, is not that the judges would get swayed, but public opinion might: in an hour-long film, the rape accused Mukesh features for perhaps a few minutes (out of an apparently 16-hour footage filmed over three days) but those callous remarks have been give wide play in the film’s advance publicity, where Mukesh talks about what women should wear or do, and whether they should go out alone at night, and how the introduction of death penalty for rape may mean that rape victims would now get killed so that they cannot testify. And some of these attitudes are partly endorsed by the two defence lawyers. One of them, A.P. Singh, stands by his controversial remark that he’d burn his daughter alive if she had premarital sex.
India’s Daughter reminds us of the utter destitution of the families from which the rapists emerged. But of course it doesn’t mean that the poor alone are to blame for rape. But the way the story is presented—of a poor, aspiring young woman raped and murdered by poorer men without any organizing principle in their lives—shrinks the complexity of rape in India into a singular narrative. It will sharpen demands for instant justice and executions on one hand, and revive an entirely unnecessary debate about foreigners preaching to Indians about gender equality. (To be fair, Misra’s is the only “foreign" accent Indians will hear in the film, and there is no intrusive narrator preaching throughout the story).
Finally, there is one important reason why the film needs to be seen in India, so that we know how many of our relatives, teachers, principals, politicians, police officers, religious leaders, khap panchayat leaders, and community elders have views remarkably similar to Mukesh’s—about what women can wear, what they should do, when they can go out, and with whom—and how Mukesh’s voice is surprisingly commonplace. For that is the discourse about rape in India, (as it is in many other places): it is not about sex; it is about control, power, and violence.