Bada-bagh, Rajasthan, India

Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 89, No 3

INDIA’S DAUGHTER: The Story of Jyoti Singh. Directed and produced by Leslee Udwin; an Assassin Films production; co-produced with BBC Storyville and DR; in association with Gamini Piyatissa Foundation, Vital Voices Global Partnership. New York, NY: Women Make Movies, 2015. 1 DVD (62 min). US$395.00, Universities, Colleges and Institutions; US$89.00, K-12, Public Libraries and Select Groups. In Hindi and English, with English subtitles. URL http://indiasdaughter.com/home/.

Leslee Udwin’s documentary film India’s Daughter is about the much publicised gang rape that took place in December 2012 in Delhi, India. Rape, sexual violence, and gender-based violence cannot be brushed under the carpet and need to be tackled head-on in all societies where they occur. In India, it is reported that a woman is raped every 22 minutes and the conviction rate is a low 24.2 percent (http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.
uk/blog/2013/11/violence-against-women-in-india). Globally, one in three women experience sexual or physical violence, often at the hands of an intimate partner (unwomen.org). The film follows closely the victim’s parents, a male friend, one of the convicts, his family, activists, and legal experts. In a context where parents’ value for their daughters is not highlighted often enough, the film movingly captures parents’ aspirations and sacrifices for their daughter. But it is the words of the convicts and the defence lawyers that have garnered most attention. Their words while shocking and disturbing do not come as a surprise or are unique to this case and point to the deep-rooted culture of hegemonic masculinity and of male privilege. They will haunt for a long time to come like the comments of a Toronto police officer that inspired the global slutwalk (http://www.slutwalktoronto.com/). The film works at a certain level because it centres on the almost raw voices of some of the men who were involved in one of the most publicised rape cases in recent years.

Beneath the good intentions to make a loud noise about sexual violence, however, there are some unsettling aspects of the film that need to be equally highlighted. Criticising a film that has generated polarised discussions and managed to place conservative, male chauvinist nationalists and progressive gender advocates in the same camp is not easy. The intended audience and purpose of the film are unclear. This matters because if the purpose was to raise awareness and discussion (advocacy) in India by reconstructing a highly publicized rape incident in an almost amateurish haphazard manner, the film offers nothing new; millions of women across the country from different backgrounds are aware and experience varying degrees of sexual violence in every walk of life, and are aware of the patriarchal double standards and privilege that work against them. This incident of gang rape in particular marks a watershed in the awareness generated and engagement with sexual violence in India. For weeks after the incident there were public protests in New Delhi and across the country; different media were saturated with debates and discussions on sexual violence, its causes and responsibilities, and strategies to prevent them. At the government level an important response was the constitution of the Verma Committee and the passing of the stringent Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. Since December 2012, Indian mainstream media reporting of rape has seen an increase, more women have been emboldened to report sexual abuse, and there is relatively more noise in public fora. It is not clear what the film brings to this context.

The film is said to be part of a global campaign of the same name launched in New York a day after International Women’s Day (http://indiasdaughter.com/home/) to tackle gender inequality and violence against women. What is global in the film? What and how does it engage global audiences? Rather than getting people to reflect on sexual violence in their particular contexts and of gender regressive attitudes that we encounter everywhere, the main takeaway seems to be India’s rape culture and misogyny, and Indian women as victims.

Yet again in Udwin’s words, the Indian rape film as it has come to be now known was “to give a gift of gratitude to India, to actually praise India, to single India out as a country that was exemplary in its response to this rape, as a country where one could actually see change beginning” (http://tinyurl.com/jdlqoa2). Neither does the film focus on India’s response to this rape nor does it acknowledge the valuable work of activists, feminist groups, and organisations, the significant progress that has been made and the challenges ahead, so much so that it offers hardly any air time to feminists and/or women’s activists in India. The film and the global campaign are symptomatic of the white woman’s burden to free India’s daughter. By focusing quite narrowly on rehashing the shock and awe of one particular rape incident, the film is limited in scope for reworking gender relations.

The director and celebrities supporting the campaign note that the mindset of the convict and defence lawyers must be made to know it has no place in the civilised world. In the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape, millions of men must have felt that this had nothing to do with them or that they were being blamed/victimised for a rare dastardly act carried out by men unlike them; supposedly psychopaths. Blame is located in the mental inabilities of the perpetrator, in his class, or in his lack of education (http://tinyurl.com/zhlxfsg). The August 2012 Steubenville rape case that was being tried in the US at the time of the Delhi gang rape is just one other example of how rape is used as a tool of male assertion, universally, embedded in the intersection of male privilege and class and other (caste) privileges, which is missed in narrowly focusing on “the mindset.” The film side-steps many such important issues which feminists and activists in India have repeatedly pointed out both for understanding and preventing sexual violence. It is guilty of oversimplification and of reproducing dangerous stereotypes of “good” and “bad” guys; the protector versus the rapist; and the “good” woman who does not deserve to be raped.

Udwin has had unprecedented access to the convict and to other people portrayed in the film and to international attention. With privilege comes responsibility. The film misses quite a few opportunities that lend themselves to thoughtful reflection, to move away from one convict to connect different aspects and levels of a global problem. The struggle to end rape, sexual violence, and gender-based violence (in India and elsewhere), to create and sustain a healthy conversation that focuses not on shaming, must go hand in hand with the fight against inequality, exploitation, and orientalism.

Thanks to Yuriko Cowper-Smith, Jess Notwell, Alaina Osborne, Mangla Shandal, Brandon Sommer, Zena Teferi Kitaw, and Harshita Yalamarty for their feedback.

Sharada Srinivasa, University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada                            

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