The documentary India’s Daughter was screened at Fitzwilliam on Sunday 26 April to an audience of over 200 as part of the series “In Conversation with the Master”, and was followed by a Q&A with director-producer Leslee Udwin and associate producer Riddhi Jha. India’s Daughter was broadcast internationally by the BBC as part of their Storyville season in March 2015, but broadcasting the film is currently prohibited in India.
This guest blog is written by Harriet Sands (HSPS, 2013) who, together with Grace Carroll (HSPS, Management, 2011), worked hard on publicity to ensure that the Auditorium was filled – no small achievement for a Sunday evening in exam term.
Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter documents the brutal gang-rape of Jyoti Singh. Jyoti, a 23 year-old medical student in Delhi, died from her injuries after being raped and beaten by six men in a public bus in 2012.
Udwin’s film presents a moving account of a case which inspired unprecedented levels of public demonstration. The documentary stands out from others (perhaps most pertinently Daughters of Mother India) in interviewing one of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, who expressed deeply misogynistic sentiments. These sentiments were complemented by those of his defence lawyers, ML Sharma and AP Singh, who claimed that there is “no place for a woman” in Indian culture, and that victims somehow deserved their fate as they should not have been on the streets at night. Singh said that if his daughter or sister “engaged in pre-marital activities … in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight”.
Organisations and movements around the world protest against this mentality (the SlutWalk and Reclaim the Night movements are good examples), but the horrific nature of Jyoti’s case together with the response, not just from civil and women’s rights campaigners, but from across society, made her case a worthy subject of documentation. It is true that in focusing on this particular case, Udwin approaches an “awkward intersection between feminism and patriotism”  and risks entering “post-colonial feminism”. However, this is more than just a documentary about India. What is presented clearly in India’s Daughter, and is perhaps more camouflaged  in other countries, including the UK, is the low value placed on women and the determination of some men, and women, to reproduce the imbalance of the system. Sexual violence against women exists across the world; in the UK, 1 in 5 women experience some form of sexual violence in their adult lives.
Concerns were raised in the Q&A session about the ethical and legal implications of showing the interview with convicted rapist Mukesh Singh while his appeal process is ongoing. While Udwin claimed all precautions necessary were taken, it is hard not to feel uneasy about the possibility that the film could lead to an increased demand for the death penalty.. An audience member repeated concerns raised by Kavita Krishnan , secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, who is interviewed in the film, that the title and narrative presenting Jyoti as her parents’ daughter, and the “nation’s daughter”, perpetuates the idea that women are not seen in their own right.
Udwin’s film was an evocative, painstaking account of Jyoti’s absence. The intimate nature of the documentary seemed almost ethnographic in its approach, which whilst true to the emotion of the case, accounts for interpretations that fail to recognise the place of the documentary in the wider campaign against sexual violence towards women. Much of the criticism of the documentary has centred on the supposed stigmatisation of Indian males, though the documentary challenges the viewer to expose the patriarchal tendencies embedded in their own cultures. A recent commentary in The Guardian about the effect of bad relationships on girls made the claim that “American girls grow up in a culture where women are ornamental…” and highlighted the “dangers in a model of womanhood defined by sacrifice and folding yourself into others”. This resonated with the contrasting pictures of Punita Devi, the wife of one of the rapists and the parents of Jyoti Singh. Ms Devi faces a life of destitution in a conservative rural village where education, employment and independence are seen as male pursuits. In contrast, Jyoti’s family had sacrificed much to allow their daughter to be educated and to achieve her dreams. They espouse the view that girls need not just to be praised for their looks and their nurturing behaviour towards others, but need to have an identity outside of their relationships. This also requires an expectation that men and boys will have more of the sensibilities often associated with femininity.
Knowing very little about India and the history of Indian gender equality movements, I initially felt nervous after watching Udwin’s documentary. Wary of passing judgement on attitudes in India, I felt a sense of the danger of endorsing a “white saviour” stance . While I retain many misgivings about India’s Daughter, after the screening, followed by a conversation with the Master Nicky Padfield, director Udwin and associate producer Riddhi Jha, it became clear that the potency of the documentary is in its critical (rather than hypercritical or hypocritical), exposition of a case that exemplifies oppressive attitudes to gender equality, in India and elsewhere.
India’s Daughter encourages reflection on the misogynistic principles laid bare in the documentary, but which exist in every society. Recognising this is important; ignoring it is inexcusable, whether in India or elsewhere.
My thanks to Sonal Sachdev Patel (Economics, 1999) for inviting Nicky Padfield to host this screening and conversation.
Leslee Udwin is on Twitter.