Gender inequalities: Universal experience

Cracking of the mirror

Print edition : April 03, 2015

At the U.S. premiere of "India’s Daughter" on March 10 (sitting, from left) Meryl Streep, Leslee Udwin, Tanya Barron, Tina Brown; (standing, from left) Baroness Valerie Amos, Tessie San Martin, Susan Davis, Alyse Nelson, Dakota Fanning, and Freida Pinto. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The gang rape and its aftermath, Leslee Udwin believes, universalised both the experience of gender inequality and the fight against it. She wanted to be the person to tell the story of Nirbhaya and its lessons for the world.

TELECAST everywhere but in the country for which it was primarily made, India’s Daughter has become a cause celebre. Slated to be telecast in India and many other countries on March 8, the documentary’s pre-telecast promotional clips that carried parts of an interview with the accused rapist Mukesh Singh raised such a hue and cry in India that it was banned by the government, sight unseen.

With official India refusing to have anything to do with the documentary’s global launch in New York on March 9, it follows that it will also remain aloof from the global campaign against gender inequality that was to be rolled out in many countries as a follow-up. It will not be surprising if the international campaign loses its drive and inspiration if India is not part of it.

Leslee Udwin is a seasoned producer who has films such as East is East (1999) and its sequel West is West (2010) to her name. She came to India to shoot India’s Daughter in 2013 out of what she describes as a sense of “gratitude, inspiration and respect” for the sustained and determined popular protests against Nirbhaya’s rape. The incident and its aftermath, she believes, universalised both the experience of gender inequality and the fight against it. She wanted to be the person to tell the story of Nirbhaya and its lessons for the world.

Little did she foresee the outcry against her endeavour, and the personal allegations she would have to face. These included charges of sensationalising, of showing disrespect to India, and of giving a rapist a forum to speak out. Worse, she was accused of paying for interviews, disregarding legal processes and procedures, profiteering, and prejudicing the case against the accused. The attacks came from the government, large sections of the media, and surprisingly, a section of Indian feminists.

Notwithstanding the clamour and din of what she calls the “smear campaign” against her, Leslee Udwin holds firm to two issues that she believes are central to her motivation in making the film and to the message it seeks to convey.

The first is that gender inequality is a global issue and a shared experience of women in every country around the world. She has said this time and again in her interviews. It was not so much the brutal rape of a young paramedic student in the Indian capital that drew her to India—Leslee Udwin herself is a rape victim—but the storm of pent-up frustration and anger against the wide prevalence of regressive attitudes to women that it released amongst young women and men. For her, that was a humbling experience, and one she felt deeply, even personally, grateful for.

“I was so grateful,” she recalls. “I am 57 years and in my lifetime had not seen such a momentous protest. This was India leading the whole world by example. The best thing I could do was to make a film that looks at the issue and gives protesters hope. The world is changing, people are coming out on the streets protesting offences against women.”

Therefore, when the ban was announced, and resulted in the BBC version of the film going viral online, Leslee Udwin was devastated, as the original India version had global statistics on the incidence of violence and rape against women. There were three versions of the film that were made. The India version did not use the victim’s real name (on the request of her parents) and carried global statistics on violence against women. The BBC version had shorter credits, and no statistics. This was because the house-style of the Storyville format does not allow statistics to be shown. The third version was the international edition, which had longer credits, showed the global statistics, and carried the name of the victim, once again with the permission of her parents.

Leslee Udwin’s conviction is that gender violence is the same everywhere, and, to fight it, alliances must be built and activated across national boundaries.

“This morning I was at the Women of the World festival at the South Bank in London,” she told Frontline over the phone in London, on the day she was leaving for New York for the global launch. “We showed newspaper cutting after newspaper cutting from British papers of judges peddling the same sort of filth that politicians and judges have said in India. We are no different. The same disease or cancer of gender inequality plagues every country in the world.”

The second issue that Leslee Udwin emphasises is that the film is only one part of a larger international campaign against gender discrimination.

Indeed, had Leslee Udwin’s concern been focussed narrowly on just the success of the film, the ban would have come as a blessing in disguise. As she told Frontline, “Don’t they [the Indian government] know that we live in a digital age? How did they think the film was not going to proliferate after the ban? It is so naïve.”

Leslee Udwin is deeply dismayed that the ban has effectively scuppered the educational campaign that the film was to launch. “The film was not just for the film’s sake,” a raspy-voiced Leslee Udwin told Frontline. “From my point of view, it was made as a tool for change. Education is the mainstay of the campaign. We had been in talks with the Education Board of Maharashtra to take the film, with discussion guides and trained volunteers of the Maharashtra State Education Board to every school in Maharashtra.” With 1,89,000 trained volunteers, the campaign would have touched 20 million young minds. “The campaign was to have then been rolled out in other States. All that is now on hold because of the ban,” she said. The notion that criticism by non-Indians of the culture of patriarchy and the often brutal forms that it takes in India is “insulting” and “denigrating” to the nation and therefore should be silenced is one that large sections of the Indian diaspora has imbibed. In Indian communities abroad, the family takes the place of the nation as the unit of identity. Ideas of family honour and the fear of being shamed are often reasons why practices such as rape, dowry, sex-selection, domestic violence and male preference are hidden from outside view, and why any “outsider” criticism is vigorously condemned as interference.

The British-Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom lends itself as a ready example. On International Women’s Day, the Sikh educational charity Everythings 13 teamed up with the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall—considered the busiest Sikh gurdwara in Europe—to organise a public screening of India’s Daughter, followed by a panel of guest speakers and an open question-and-answer session.

Calling the ban on the documentary “immature and a case of tunnel-vision”, Rani Bilkhu, women’s rights activist and the founder of the charity Jeena International, dismissed the argument that the film-maker sought to give the accused a platform to air his appalling views. “The film showed that Mukesh the accused and his highly educated lawyer had the same ideology. Besides, it was a very poignant film that makes us reflect on ourselves,” she added.

When she addressed the gurdwara meeting, Rani Bilkhu asked the audience how many opposed the ban on the documentary. All the roughly 100 or so people present raised their hands. “I then drew an analogy between the ban and what happens in our own homes,” she said. “I asked how many of them had been the victim, perpetrator or bystander of a crime against women in the home, but had not reported it because it would compromise the ‘honour’ of the family. There were hardly any hands raised, but it really made people think.”

Rani Bilkhu’s organisation works with women in the South Asian community, and she says issues like trafficking, forced marriage, domestic violence and even honour killings are disturbingly widespread. “The Indian diaspora migrated issues like izzat (honour) and sex-selection. So India is not alone when it comes to sexual violence. These are global issues, and particularly prevalent in marginalised communities. Here, in most households, we don’t want to see our own shortcomings, and that is something we need to reflect upon,” she said.

India’s Daughter creates a tableau of contemporary India, replete with an array of real life actors who represent all that is good and bad, noble and reprehensible in a society that is caught in the swivel and swirl of economic and social change. It also expertly reconstructs the context of poverty-driven crime, of young aspirations thwarted by deprivation, childhood violence, and deviant cultural messages. In place of reflection came a ban on this disturbing documentary that has held a mirror up to Indian society.

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