Why the New Film About the Gang Rape and Murder of Jyoti Singh Is Required Viewing

Why the New Film About the Gang Rape and Murder of Jyoti Singh Is Required Viewing

Why the New Film About the Gang Rape and Murder of Jyoti Singh Is Required Viewing

The documentary has been banned in India—which makes watching it only more urgent.


Jyoti Singh was an educated young woman who dared to speak up for her rights and exercise her freedom as an individual in a social context where women are widely perceived as being lesser humans than men—and she paid for it. On the night of December 16, 2012, returning home with a male friend after going to the movies in New Delhi, she boarded a bus, not knowing that the five other passengers were men known to the bus driver. The men challenged Singh’s friend for being out with a girl at night. When Singh spoke up for herself, the men beat up her friend, then brutally gang-raped and fatally assaulted her on the moving bus. Without clothes and missing her intestines, she was thrown out to die in the streets. In the words of one of the rapists, this was meant to “teach her a lesson.”

In India, as elsewhere, rapes are not uncommon. But what was unique about this particularly gruesome gang-rape—which happened in the capital city of the world’s largest democracy at a time when the anti-corruption movement had galvanized civic participation—was that it was followed by massive protests, involving people from all different walks of life. Because of the nature and scale of the protests, the case gained international attention.

The Indian government was caught off-guard, and initially responded with water cannons and platitudes from politicians. But sheer people power and media attention meant that, in the wintry December days that followed, charges were filed against the accused in record time (seventeen days), a judicial review committee was set up and Singh herself (referred to in India as “Nirbhaya,” or “the fearless”) was flown to Singapore for specialist trauma treatment (though she died almost immediately upon arrival, on December 29, 2012). Four of the five rapists were given the death penalty (the fifth was a juvenile who will be freed in December 2015); one committed suicide in prison, and the rest still have their appeals pending two and a half years later. But though the rapists were caught and sentenced, rape statistics continue to add up, and other brutal rapes, including of minors, have since been in the news.

India’s Daughter, the BBC Storyville documentary made by Leslee Udwin, a British filmmaker and British Academy of Film and Television Arts award winner, memorializes this one particular case: focusing on Jyoti Singh’s life and death through interviews with her parents, her friend and tutor, one of the rapists, rapists’ families, and some administrative officials. Eschewing any generalizations, the documentary presents the events of that day sequentially as they unfolded for Singh and for the rapists, presenting the different voices directly and without any voiceover or narration. It also charts the protests that followed. Udwin has gone on record to say that as a rape survivor herself, this case had a special resonance for her because it was followed by an unprecedented public outcry against sexual violence.

The right-wing-majoritarian Indian government reacted to the documentary by claiming to be “upset” and banning it outright. The parliamentary affairs minister declared it to be “an international conspiracy to defame India,” and a ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) member of Parliament said that “it will affect tourism.” Subsequently, YouTube and Google also chose to comply with the Indian government’s demands that the documentary be removed. The Hindu-nationalist BJP government, with its close relations to extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has overseen a sharp rise in intolerance of all kinds since it came to power in May 2014. There have been numerous incidents of hate speech and intimidation of minority Christians and Muslims. One BJP legislator was recently filmed at a Hindu extremist rally where his supporter called on Hindu men to exhume the dead bodies of Muslim women and rape them. During March 2015, in one week alone, the state imposed six bans (including one criminalizing the possession or eating of beef in one province, which now carries a jail term more severe than for drunk driving, theft or manslaughter). An insecure, intolerant government that seeks to control unnecessary aspects of its citizens’ lives is undoubtedly, reacting imperiously in the name of the “nation.”

But India’s Daughter is essential viewing—within and outside India. It highlights Jyoti’s strong sense of identity as a determined young woman, and humanizes her parents. Far from reinforcing any stereotypes of Indian women as merely helpless and hapless victims, it depicts women who are in the roles of investigating officer, doctor, judicial panel member, administrator, activist, politician. Further, in presenting the rapist’s own remorseless account of the incident, it reveals a certain kind of masculinity that allows the rapists, and the lawyers who defend the rapists, to explicitly justify the incidence of rape to themselves. By doing so, it draws attention to the widely shared patriarchal cultural norms that excuse violence against women by blaming it on women. Juxtaposed against statements made by Jyoti’s male tutor, the film makes clear that the dominant discourse of masculinity in India is contested and challenged by progressive and conscientious men. It is nuanced enough to convey the undeniable class and power disparities in Indian society. For example, it features scenes from December 2012 protests where the protesters are also demanding justice for women brutalized in heavily militarized regions—Kashmir, tribal areas in central India, “North-East” India—where emergency laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, have been in place for decades, effectively giving immunity to the accused if they belong to the security forces.

More worryingly, some Indian feminists (with notable exceptions) have reacted with uncharacteristic vitriol to this film, while claiming their objections are different from the government’s. Even though the filmmaker had all the necessary legal permissions, they object that the documentary features interviews with a convict whose case is pending appeal. Curiously, this same issue was not raised when Afzal Guru (a Kashmiri man who was hanged in 2013 on the basis of circumstantial evidence, whose body was buried in prison without informing his family, and whose judgment read that his hanging must be carried out to “to satisfy the collective conscience of a nation”) was interviewed in the same jail by an Indian journalist. Some critics have issues with the technical imperfections of the documentary (camera technique or narrative arc), others claim that it neither provides the wider global context of sexual violence, nor does it highlight cases involving prominent Western male figures such as the ex–IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Udwin’s documentary is a sensitive and narrowly focused portrayal of one specific case; objecting to it for what it is not seems strange indeed. Some say the film shouldn’t be viewed because it will be too painful, or because there’s nothing new in it. This is a clear refusal to engage with an issue that is urgent and real. There can be no clichés when we raise our voice against injustice.

Then there is the argument that Leslee Udwin, being British, suffers from a “White Saviour Complex.” Further, some argue, the film is misogynist because it’s titled “India’s Daughter”; it demonizes or glorifies the rapist, it will strengthen the call for capital punishment, and will feed into domestic and international reductive stereotypes about Indian society. These claims betray cultural chauvinism, nationalist gatekeeping and a complacent undermining of transnational feminist solidarity. The film itself shows how misconstrued this position is.

The film sensitively presents a nuanced, but clearly focused, picture of an important case. To dismiss Udwin’s intentions and her work only because of the color of her skin is unjustified, and shows a poor understanding of the postcolonial critique. And the phrase “India’s daughter” encapsulates the symbolism that had come to be associated with Jyoti Singh during the protests. As the documentary narrates her life (her childhood, struggles, aspirations) from her parents’ point of view, the title does not seem out of place.

Nor does the documentary promote any particular view on the issue of capital punishment. The assumption that people who watch the documentary within India will not be able to recognize pain as pain and violence as violence (and thus, glorify or demonize the rapist as an exceptional figure), is patronizing. The Editors’ Guild of India has strongly condemned the ban, and those who have seen the film have denounced the misogynist and sexist statements of the defense lawyers for the rapist. As to the possibility that there exist ill-informed people outside India who will make lazy assumptions and stereotype Indians without watching the film or without understanding its message: that is no reason to ban or restrict the viewing of the film. Finally, Jyoti Singh’s parents—a struggling lower-middle-class liberal couple—have gone through a tremendous ordeal, and this film is the first time their point of view has been center-stage. They have called for the film to be widely viewed. It is hard to understand how any ostensibly feminist position aligns itself with a right-wing government stance, especially at a time when doing so might place the victim’s parents under more pressure and in a difficult position vis-à-vis the government.

Women, the marginalized castes, the impoverished, racial and sexual minorities and the colonized have always been victims of vicious and violent rapes. Questioning the way in which identity determines access to justice is a clamant issue in a patriarchal, capitalist, nation-statist world. People must see this documentary, because it tells a significant story of sexual violence in a sensitive manner. Moreover, the way in which it has been received, and the grounds on which it has been banned by the Indian government and criticized by some Indian feminists, opens a wider conversation about the trans/international concept of global feminist solidarity in the postcolonial world.


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