We have a bigger problem dealing with documentaries than with the disturbing truths they reveal
The outrage is typical. As a society, we have a bigger problem dealing with documentaries than with the disturbing truths they reveal. That includes the government, media and activists. This was true of the Muzaffarnagar documentary En Dino Muzaffarnagar (exploring the roots of communalism in that city), which was denied clearance by the censor board, and now it is true of filmmaker Leslee Udwin and her film India’s Daughter, which was to be shown on the BBC on 8 March and was also to be telecast on NDTV 24x7 on the same day. The problem is not the rapist’s mindset, which is being chillingly revealed, but the fact that someone took all the permissions required and shot the interviews. Or that the permission was given.
The minute some footage was shown on news TV and panel discussions began on Tuesday night, all hell broke loose. Why was permission given?
Arnab Goswami on Times Now wanted to know if interviewing a rapist was journalism. He asked how a channel could show such an interview, naming rival NDTV, which was showing some portions at that point and was slated to telecast the film on 8 March in India. Is this journalism, thundered a man who compels some viewers to ask that question every time they watch his shows, in which he attacks and insults people without giving them enough chance to speak. Currently seven activists, including Aruna Roy, Vrinda Grover and Kavita Krishnan, have announced that they are boycotting his show because of his treatment of women activists, bordering on hate speech, on his Newshour show on 17 February.
Ironically, some of these signatories and others are also objecting to Udwin’s film because they say it could violate the judicial process. They also say she did not try to understand the issue of women’s violence by speaking to them. The first is a valid argument, the second is not.
In the Rajya Sabha, home minister Rajnath Singh thundered on Wednesday that rape was being used for commercial gain by a Western filmmaker. His ministry had already passed a restraining order on the film being shown, the police had scrambled around on Tuesday and filed a first information report against unknown persons. By Wednesday evening, news channels had begun reporting that legal action against the filmmaker was being contemplated. This is quite extraordinary. Is making a searing documentary now a crime?
The response could be dismissed as typical, if it was not also distracting from the far more serious issue. Yes, the revelations are ugly, but we need to understand if they are an aberration or run deeper than we are aware in the male mindset in some parts of the country. If finance minister Arun Jaitley has allocated yet another ₹ 1,000 crore for a Nirbhaya fund, does not the government need all the help it can to understand the problem and how to approach it so that the money is well spent, if it is spent at all? It barely has been, since the first allocation was made in 2013. Former finance minister P. Chidambaram added another ₹ 1,000 crore in 2014, and the ruling National Democratic Alliance government yet another ₹ 1,000 crore last week. That is ₹ 3,000 crore waiting to solve a problem that surely needs to be understood first?
Such reporting that has taken place sporadically on what is being done with the Nirbhaya fund tells us that all of the following are being contemplated: one stop crisis centres for women in distress, closed-circuit television (CCTVs) and GPS in public transport vehicles, alarm buttons in these vehicles for alerting authorities, toll-free numbers, and self-defence lessons for the needy. It is all about mitigating what women face.
Security and safety can amount to prevention of crime but that is not enough. Might Udwin’s much-maligned film force not just government but also activists to consider the root cause of male violence against women and how that might be tackled on a war footing?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was much closer to the mark when he brought up the issue of sexual violence against women in his Independence Day address and suggested families look inward and ask themselves how they were bringing up their sons.
Finally, since there is so much outrage over a film which is documenting reality, why is there none over the entertainment industry’s contribution to misogyny? Udwin’s film can’t be shown to that sliver of an audience that watches English news, but music channels continue to air Honey Singh videos with crudely explicit lyrics that treat women as sex objects. And Bollywood embraces his brand of music, as does the Punjabi film industry.
After being arrested once, he disassociated himself from songs which promote sexual violence with the word rape in the title (in Hindi), but the rest of his lyrics remain misogynistic. Don’t youth in the Hindi heartland and beyond get their notions of what women are meant for from consuming songs like these? Singh’s lyrics provoked protests immediately after the Nirbhaya incident in December 2012, but they are still around. Would the home minister consider being equally outraged by these?
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.