Shooting the messenger

In denial

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Film-maker Leslee Udwin at a press conference in New Delhi on March 3. Photo: PTI

New Delhi, September 29, 2013: Mukesh Singh, one of the accused in the December 2012 gang-rape case who was interviewed in Leslee Udwin's film, being brought to the Delhi High Court. Photo: S. Subramanium

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He said in the Rajya Sabha on March 4 that Leslee Udwin had been granted permission to interview the convict for "social purposes" and not "commercial use". Photo: PTI

A silent march by students in Bangalore urging the government to lift the ban on the documentary film, on March 13. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Instead of acknowledging and addressing systemic problems such as rape and other forms of violence against women and regressive mindsets, the government bans a documentary that draws attention to them.

Thanks to a hasty and foolish ban, an above-average documentary has become a cause célèbre.

The discussion about and around India’s Daughter in the formal and social media is as if it has been aired and seen. Its ethical, aesthetical, legal, cultural and national-interest angles are being parsed in such detail, with such illustrative descriptions of the footage, that even those who have not seen it—that is, those who have not made the effort to go online and look for it—will get the picture. Abroad, no one but no one cares a hoot for the ban. If anything, it is as if the Home Minister promoted the film with his ban. The BBC decided to cash in on the upsurge of interest caused by the ban to have an extra telecast immediately, ahead of and in addition to the scheduled slot on the International Women’s Day. So we managed, with our bluster, to have it shown twice in quick succession in the United Kingdom. Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway are among the other countries where the film was scheduled to be telecast. Its premiere in the United States, in New York, was marked by strong expressions of solidarity by Meryl Streep and Frieda Pinto.

There can, admittedly, be more to a ban than its mere efficiency or effectiveness. Coming from the state, it can be a serious statement of intent, purpose or policy, even if it fails miserably. But what we got in this instance is a babble of reasons which did not add up to much. How could the film-maker, Leslee Udwin, have interviewed the convict, Mukesh Singh, in the Tihar jail? It was a loaded question, insinuating that something improper had been going on. When it looked like she had the required clearance from the relevant authorities, the government changed tack to suggest that the permission was for canning footage to be used for a social, not a commercial, purpose—as if whether the film should be seen or not hinged on that technicality. For good measure, a couple of other allegations were thrown at the film: it would dent India’s image abroad; it would affect tourist flow into the country. Lest these come across as trivial and unconvincing—and they did—the authorities invoked the ultimate reason one could not argue with, because it is grounded in fear psychosis. Mukesh Singh’s derogatory comments on women would instil fear and tension, cause a public outcry and create “a law and order situation”. The rapist and murderer as bogeyman became the clinching alibi.

Those who have seen the film are likely to wonder what the paranoia is about. It is seriously flawed in some ways, but efficiently organised and earnest even where it is inadequate. It certainly does not deserve the martyrdom of a ban. Mukesh Singh does not come across as evil incarnate who strikes terror in our hearts. He represents the banality of evil pathetically displaying his warped mind about women as an inferior and vulnerable gender. We may find ourselves reminding ourselves that he is one of the six convicted for perpetrating the chillingly gruesome and perverse rape and torture of Nirbhaya so that he is not unduly humanised in our ken; so that we do not empathise, as against sympathise, with him. He maintains that he was at the wheel of the bus throughout and did not himself participate in the rape, although the verdict is that he is guilty of the fatal rape as well. One cannot also help the uncomfortable suspicion that his entire spiel may be performative; that he is, of his own accord or under advice from his counsel, playing up to the camera. He has no hesitation in indicting the others convicted with him and describing their vile despicable acts in detail. He seems, in the process, without saying as much, to be setting the contrast between their direct hand in the crime and his relatively indirect involvement as the driver of the bus. There is the manner of an approver about him and his testimony to the camera.

Leslee Udwin’s hands-off treatment of the subject, making the characters do almost all the talking to take the film forward, seems almost a culpable lapse as far as this interview, which is its central axis, is concerned. After all, this is, so to speak, a “custodial interview” and she owed it to the viewers to provide the context and the circumstances that took her to it; her experience of how, and sense of why, Mukesh Singh agreed to be recorded on camera; and qualifications and caveats, if any, with which one had to take what he says. The treatment of the documentary is her creative choice, but in the absence of such a perspective and given the doubt whether Mukesh Singh’s words can be taken at face value, the centre plank of the work remains loose and shaky.

It may also be significant that he is not speaking here as one who has exhausted his legal recourse and is reconciled to his fate, but as one whose case is pending appeal in the higher court. While this is no reason to invoke sub judice alarmism and keep the case out of bounds for investigative journalism in the public interest, it does inflect the nature and tenor of his averments, and makes his agency in the film that much trickier. As the case of Dhananjoy Chatterji, sent to the gallows in 2004 for the rape and murder of a schoolgirl in West Bengal, reminds us, even one who is at the end of his legal tether, whose appeal to the highest court has been turned down and who is facing certain capital punishment, can continue to be in denial or persist with a personal account that disputes the evidence that went into the verdict. In notes committed to his diary in prison, and disclosed by the jailers after his death, Dhananjoy Chatterji apparently maintained that he killed the girl but had not raped her. That leaves us no wiser, no more certain about anything.

The sub judice argument as pushed by a group of women lawyers and activists, among them Indira Jaisingh, Vrinda Grover and Kavitha Krishnan, who had in a letter to NDTV sought “postponement” of the telecast of the documentary because (among other reasons) it “carries the potential to prejudice the outcome of the legal proceedings”, may, as the Editor’s Guild in its statement on the ban pointed out, well be “absurd”. “Judges, particularly of the Supreme Court,” elaborates the statement of the Guild, “are by training and temperament immune to the happenings in the public sphere outside the court, and it is an insult to the Supreme Court to suggest that the airing of the convict’s perverted views would tend to interfere with the course of justice.”

At the same time, this does not mean that courts function in a social vacuum and that public opinion is entirely irrelevant. In Dhananjoy Chatterji vs State of West Bengal , the last such case of rape and murder in which capital punishment was confirmed, Justice A.S. Anand of the Supreme Court, dismissing the appeal by the defendant, noted inter alia in his judgment delivered in January 1994:, , “Imposition of appropriate punishment is the manner in which the courts respond to the society’s cry for justice against the criminals. Justice demands that courts should impose punishment fitting to the crime so that the courts reflect public abhorrence of the crime. The courts must not only keep in view the rights of the criminal but also the rights of the victim of crime and the society at large while considering imposition of appropriate punishment” (emphasis added). The Nirbhaya case has received unprecedented public attention and been marked by strong and demonstrative expressions of public and media opinion. A more correct understanding of the situation may therefore be that while judges are naturally or inevitably exposed to all that goes on around them, they remain above the fray, uninfluenced by extraneous factors, and go strictly by the evidence adduced. This, if anything, is one more reason why there is no impinging reason to ban India’s Daughter. The documentary, arguably, only adds to the substantial body of media and public comment and opinion, the freewheeling democratic discourse on the Nirbhaya case and did not deserve to be singled out for a ban.

The hints dropped that this is a foreign gaze uninformed by the dynamics of culture and tradition at work in India are abhorrent, first, for the cultural relativism they bring to a subject that has to do with the basic dignity and persona of the woman as much in India as anywhere else; and, second, for being less than fair to the director, Leslee Udwin’s earnestness of purpose and passion for the cause. And yet, the documentary is not free of the generic class bias implicit in Indian as much as in foreign film-makers’ approach to filming the poor and the deprived. This is expressed in a taken-for-granted intrusiveness that assumes that those living in slums or on the streets are fair game for the curious (at times voyeuristic) camera. We saw this at work in the television coverage of the case of Dhananjoy Chatterji’s rape and murder of the school girl. The middle-class home and family of the girl were well protected and withheld from the TV cameras and we did not—and rightly so—get to see anything of them. But the cameras had a field day when it came to the convict’s poor dwelling and family outside the city, in Kuludihi village, especially in the run-up to his hanging in 2004. The cameras were unrelenting in capturing and beaming images of the vacant stares of his father and grieving family members, as if it was a matter of right. There were reports of the family, in desperation, throwing stones at the journalists to keep them away.

Nothing as grievous as that happens in India’s Daughter. Leslee Udwin is generally scrupulous and meticulous in diffusing the images where the faces are not to be identified. But the stereotype persists in her general assumption that delinquency and criminality are waiting to happen in the indigent circumstances of the slum or street her camera weaves through. While the parents of one or the other convict speaking on camera is understandable, one wonders whether it is alright to show the faces of siblings standing by. In fact, a brief shot of a sister of one of the convicts, Vinay Sharma, standing inside the house by the doorway sparks the imagination of the London Telegraph’s Claire Cohen into comparing it with the near iconic image of the Afghan Girl made famous by National Geographic’s Steve McCurry. The exotic Oriental stereotype, it seems, is always around the corner.

The documentary is on sure ground, engaging and moving, when it is recounting the terrible and traumatising story of Nirbhaya and all that leads to and feeds into it. The dignity and determination of her parents as they struggle with the memory of their child, her hopes and ambition and the brutal ordeal that cuts it all cruelly short, are poignant. Pitted against this is the deadening mindset of aggressive manhood of not just the convicts represented by Mukesh Singh, but by a large section of society. The patriarchy flaunted by the two defence lawyers themselves would be comic if it were not so wretched. One of them, in third rate poetic language, compares a female to a soft flower that needs protection and a male to a thorn, tough and strong. If the flower is put in the gutter, he goes on, it is spoilt. If it is put in the temple it is worshipped. He continues in this strain for a bit and concludes that “we have the best culture” in which “there is no place for a woman”. The other lawyer is more forthright. If his sister or daughter were to have an extra or premarital affair with a man he would take her to his farmhouse, pour petrol on her, and set her alight in front of his family. What is worse, we see and hear all this and are not unduly shocked because we are familiar with the type.

But where it attempts to look at the larger picture of the “why” of things, of gender injustice and suppression of women, the film flits above the surface, becomes superficial and disjointed. Perhaps there was no need to take this dimension on. But having done so, the director seems in the uncomfortable position of having bitten off more than she can chew. There is some ready-reckoner sociology from an Oxford academic and commonplace psychology from the defence or prison psychiatrist which does not tell us anything we do not already know or could not have easily guessed. It is here that it becomes obvious that the film is targeted at a foreign, rather than Indian, audience. Much of the footage is familiar because it was the stuff of news during the days when the Nirbhaya case occupied the national mind space. But it does not appear rehashed because it at once recapitulates the agony, the anger and the protests of those days and is imbricated into the narrative. Where the familiar becomes trite is in the half-baked theoretical construct. We know how woefully short this falls of a real or integrated understanding of the context when we contrast it with the thorough and investigative work of another foreigner, the South Asia Correspondent of The Guardian, who set out to explore the why of things around the Nirbhaya case. Jason Burke’s Delhi Rape: How India’s Other Half Lives published in September 2013 is the best media study yet of the circumstances surrounding the traumatic event.

One person conspicuously absent in the film, Nirbhaya’s male friend who boarded the bus with her that fateful December night of 2012 and who was overpowered by the gang of six before they set upon her, has suddenly broken his silence after it was shown abroad and surfaced in the social media in India. What he has to say—that the filmic account of what took place on the bus is “far from truth”—can be embarrassing for the film-maker. But then his sudden appearance on the scene against the film makes it difficult to decide whether his views are off his own bat or whether they are planted by the dirty tricks department of those embarrassed by the strong adverse reaction to the ban.

Then there is the tiresomely facile conspiracy theory—international, no less. The film-maker, in cahoots with the BBC and whoever else is with or behind them, is out to tarnish India for unknown or unstated reasons. Or, if one is to seek out a reason between the lines, because the country is bounding recklessly ahead, much to the discomfiture of those who would like to see it lag behind.

The BBC may not be the paragon of virtuous journalism and may not be free of the general cultural slant that informs Western media coverage of the rest, particularly the developing part, of the world. But, in stark contrast to what governments in India expect of the media here and what a section of the media eagerly complies with, it does make a point of placing the larger public interest above narrow nationalism. The latest evidence of such journalism in the public, as against a narrowly perceived national interest was in its coverage of the revelation that the abominable “Jihad” John was a British citizen, Mohammed Emwazi. The broadcaster gave considerable play to the press conference by the campaign group CAGE which alleged that Emwazi, “a beautiful young man”, was driven to what he became because of racism and constant harassment by intelligence agents in the U.K. It received considerable flak for this from political circles and the public, but has stayed the course in its even-handed attempt to try and understand why and how some British Muslims are getting “radicalised”.

The point, though, in our context, is to recognise and acknowledge that rape and killing and exploitation and dangerously regressive mindsets are systemic problems to be combated not by doses of chauvinism, but by political sagacity and will, and social action. To think that they will go away if we sweep them under the carpet is to really stretch the idea of “swachh bharat”.

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