The limits of India’s Daughter (and our own)

India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin’s documentary for the BBC Storyville project, focuses for 60 minutes on the description of the rape and murder of student Jyoti Singh, an incident that came to be known as the Delhi gang rape. Viewers expecting a fully comprehensive investigation of all the social and political issues that surround gender inequality in India can avoid viewing the programme (and can probably avoid viewing documentaries in general). For those, however, seeking a starting point to begin to understand and reflect on this brutal event, India’s Daughter is painful but necessary viewing.  

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The outcries that have erupted prior to the release of the documentary have been of a specular nature: on one hand, those who support the Delhi government’s decision to censor broadcast of the documentary in India in order to safeguard public decorum (we still don’t talk about things we are ashamed of) and on the other, those who, rather than viewing a documentary lacking the necessary in-depth analysis, would prefer that nothing is broadcast at all.

With India’s Daughter, however, Udwin has made a worthy piece of work, some would call it “Anglo-Saxon” in style due to its sense of detachment, which implies a type of journalism that describes only the facts without “dirtying its hands” with opinions. It is, however, the very selection of which facts to describe that expresses its own opinion, and here the first problems arise.

Udwin concentrates exclusively on the chain of events connected to the to assault on 16 December 2012, when Jyoti Singh was raped by six men on a bus while returning from the cinema. The filmmaker focuses on the details of this episode, going on to examine the lives of the victim’s family, the rapists’ families and, in particular, one of the six assailants, Mukesh Singh, to whom Udwin entrusts the task of narrating the horrific story.

Singh is interviewed inside Tihar Prison in New Delhi, such a scoop raises questions about what strings the BBC managed to pull in order to gain access for a TV to interview with an inmate on death row awaiting the verdict of his appeal in the Supreme Court. In front of the cameras Singh describes the dynamic of the attack, including the horrifying details of the case, and also introduces the viewers to the backgrounds of the other attackers, all of whom were Indians living day to day on the margins of society surviving through petty crime in a city slum. A monstrous identikit emerges of men that India’s iniquitous society has denied the luxury of a respectable existence or even a legitimate one. The six attackers appear to be raging against this discriminating condition through a type of anti-conventional machismo, seizing for themselves their right to entertainment, sex and drunkenness, taking by force at night that which is denied to them. In this way the viewer could think that the socio-economic conditions and sexual violence are closely connected factors, but this would be wrong. In India rape, even group rape, is not the prerogative of only the destitute classes: it is a transversal criminal phenomenon, just as the country’s patriarchal rhetoric is transversal.

Mukesh Singh’s attempts to vindicate himself include the full range of exceptional presumptions of Indian culture: women must stay at home after sunset, if they go out they are doing ‘unwomanly things’ (not dressing according to tradition, going to bars, challenging the established patriarchal order) and so they deserve to be taught a lesson. From Singh’s words, reinforced in the documentary by the same sentiments put forward by the two defence lawyers representing the six men, a picture emerges of the “instructive” intentions of the punishment meted out to Jyoti, who was not only raped (does extraction of non-consensual sex by force not also imply a punitive intent?), but also brutalized with an iron bar. Furthermore investigators managed to determine the responsibility of three of the six attackers by matching the attackers’ teeth with bite-marks discovered on the Jyoti’s corpse.

Viewers are faced with a monster, or as Jyoti’s father describes him ‘Satan’, a devil capable of acts so horrific that in the public imagination they are not perceived as belonging to this world. But the monster, the exceptional element, repeats the same sentiments that he has heard from politicians, policemen and spiritual leaders. These opinions, therefore, belong to a community that, in spite of its enormous socio-economic disparities, is united in its defence of so-called “Indian values”. The impression, is that India’s patriarchal society with all of its dogma and its resistance to change, serves as a type of social glue that is even capable of making the marginalized and excluded feel as if they belong.

At this point it is easy to comprehend the criticism from the Indian feminist movement: if the documentary shows only one piece of a complicated picture, it could give the erroneous impression that putting the monster to death is the solution to the problem of rape in India. In reality, the problem goes to the root of Indian society and involves a large portion of it, together with the politicians it elects and the police officers that it appoints to serve.

During the documentary the political class and the police are not even slightly criticized nor held responsible for what occurred. The politicians that were interviewed issued the usual rose-tinted statements (the tale of Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister of New Delhi  at the time of the attack in 2012). The New Delhi Police are rightly praised for the effectiveness of their investigations following the crimes of 16 December, while the police baton charges on the protesting students was dealt with only as a side aspect of the protests. Those who ordered the baton charges also appear to avoid scrutiny as do the actions of parliament, which, by focussing on the students’ spontaneous protests, managed to hijack the subject of national debate. If the students wanted to put patriarchal society, of which the six defendants were only the most obvious examples, in the dock, the politicians responded by shifting the focus to the “monsters” and introducing the death penalty for the crime of rape, effectively drawing a line beneath the episode.

The limits of India’s Daughter are linked to the nature of contemporary journalism, which in this case is forced to reach a compromise between the complexity of the facts and the non-specialist nature of the audience to whom it speaks. Udwin performs this task well, deciding to limit the scope of the documentary to one single episode: the Delhi gang rape. A deep understanding of the complexity of the theme as a whole offers some clues for those who are slightly better informed about Indian affairs: footage of protesting students shouting “justice for Soni Sori” should inspire viewers to find out what happened to her; or the editing of the interview with Ram and Mukesh Singh’s mother, who, after having complained that her children will not be able to help her in her old age asks, “isn’t that the reason why people have children?” thus revealing the deep chasm in the concept of the family in patriarchal society, while still keeping the subject at arm’s length.

Udwin also manages to dismantle the poor = criminal rhetoric which permeates a large part of the documentary. Ample space is provided to the reflections and reasoning of Jyoti’s parents, who, in spite of originating from the same environment as the six attackers (they too were migrants from Bihar) had sold their ancestral land to enable their daughter to study: they are the spokespersons for a progressive mentality that is beginning to spread beyond the city. They are the element of hope and their presence is fundamental in India’s Daughter, which otherwise directs its viewers through the horrific narration of the crime and the tear-jerking moments that remind us that we are watching a product destined for mass broadcast and not a video produced by an academic panel.

As viewers we are limited in the search for solutions within a work that does not have this aim: India’s Daughter does not explain to us how India can escape from the spiral of violence and does not even want to describe the current state of the struggle against patriarchal society in India. It is not a militant documentary just a documentary that tells a story about one part of the whole.

That story, infinite in its complexity of social change in India, is narrated clearly and honestly by Udwin. It is not the story of rape in India, but the story of Jyoti Singh, killed by six men. From this point further investigation could continue in many directions: focusing on the problem of law and order in the country; on social disparity and the brutal economic model; on the trench warfare of the Indian political establishment in its resistance to change (in India government censorship is a symptom of weakness) which, like it or not, will arrive; on the daily gender discrimination that leads to episodes such as the Delhi Gang rape; on models of machismo portrayed in Bollywood’s mass entertainment; on the difficulties that feminist and human rights movements  face in trying to do their work. Did we really need the BBC to tell this story? Yes, no Indian newspaper or NGO has the communicative strength to interview all those people, or even the power to get TV cameras into a maximum security prison.

It will fall to someone else, perhaps Indian or perhaps not, to take up these themes that were hinted at in India’s Daughter but not investigated. But for now, if you wish to understand just one aspect of a complex picture, viewing Leslee Udwin’s documentary is a painful but necessary experience.

@majunteo

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