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India’s Daughter: the banality of evil

Leslee Udwin's 'India's Daughter,' for all the furore it caused, does not say or show anything extraordinary. In fact, it is this very ordinariness that strikes you as surprising. Why, then, did the government take umbrage and ban it? Why is there a controversy over something that everyone already knows? Why such fierce debate when what the film contains is only a mirror to our society?

Prior to the release of the film by BBC on March 5 (it was up on YouTube in India on the same day before the government asked that it be taken down), advertisements of the film made it out to be a hard-hitting documentary on Mukesh Singh, one of the convicts in the December 16, 2012, Delhi gang-rape case. But this is hardly a film that delves into the mind of a rapist. Udwin says she interviewed Mukesh for over 16 hours but he barely features for a few minutes in the nearly hour-long documentary. Besides him, the filmmaker interviews the girl's parents, the defence lawyers, women’s rights activists, judges, the parents of the convicts and the rape-accused themselves, to highlight the reprehensible attitudes that India holds towards its women.

Echoes of Mukesh

All their opinions in the film are so familiar that they seem like a conglomeration of newspaper articles and opinions. Mukesh's expression is consistently impassive (as Udwin says, he shows no remorse, but neither does he show any other emotion). His statements resonate in some of the outrageous comments we have heard from our politicians and others. He blames the woman's sartorial choices for the rape; he blames the girl for going for a film with a boy. What else will happen to her but rape, he asks in a matter of fact way. Mukesh may be an aberration for the sheer grotesqueness of the crime he has committed, but certainly isn’t one for the beliefs he holds. There are many who echo his views, either silently or vocally, in patriarchal India, and we come across them in our daily lives.

The poor wife of one of the rapists says in the documentary, "What will I do when my husband dies? There is no point in living." She’s not very different from the many women in this country who believe that their lives, choices and decisions are not their own but are defined and must be made by other men: their fathers, boyfriends, husbands, uncles, mentors etc. Not very different from those who believe that once this fulcrum ceases to exist, their lives become meaningless. Or that their husbands or male relatives can do no wrong.

Or take the lawyers in the film, who, through the sheer absurdity of their statements, come across as actors auditioning for some role rather than members of the judiciary fighting important cases in this country. One of them compares women to diamonds and men to dogs and says men will “pick up” these diamonds if they are found on the road. He believes he is paying women a compliment by calling them diamonds, even as he simultaneously refers to them as objects of desire. And according to him, men are dogs, dogs hunt, ergo men hunt. He also banally repeats what Mukesh says: women must not wear provocative clothes and wander into the night, for what else will happen to them but rape? Then there is the other defence lawyer who stands by a statement he made two years back — that he will burn his daughters alive if they engaged in pre-marital sex.

Then there are the sane voices of this country: activists, judges and the girl’s parents and friend. They reveal her name and speak of her not as a rape victim but as a person, a student, a fighter, who had dreams. They represent the voices of those in the country who struggle every day to shift attitudes towards women so that they are seen as thinking subjects and not consumable objects, those who fight a deep-rooted problem while questioning notions of masculinity, power and consent.

Problematic

The documentary certainly has several problems, the primary of them being that it doesn’t at any point address rape as a universal problem, as Udwin claims it does. It refers to one rape case that she says shook the world, but that one case barely scratches the surface of the problem in India, let alone the world.

Despite this ordinariness, the Indian government has banned it. If the film was to be banned for influencing judicial process, then pushing its release to later, not a blanket ban, would make sense. But we must also ask ourselves the question: is the judiciary so easily swayed in India that one film can influence its final verdict in a two and a half year-old case? Have the lawyers not interacted with Mukesh and the other rapists on several occasions to notice his complete lack of repentance? Would 10 minutes of footage change their minds?

Second, many said the film would affect India’s image. When statements such as the defence lawyers’ are made every now and then, do these never reach international media? Is India’s image in the world dependent on one film alone? Why are we so keen to project ourselves as a nation for women when the bitter truth has been out in the open for a while? India has several achievements to be proud of but it also has several skeletons in its closet. Hiding poverty during the Commonwealth games or pretending that we treat all our women with respect when under international glare is not going to help us solve our problems.

Udwin’s film is not what she wants it to be. It focuses only on one incident, and one that the world is already more than familiar with. We must also not forget that interviewing rapists and their families from poorer socio-economic backgrounds is easier than interviewing people who are accused of the same crime but are more educated, more aware of the motives of a film like this; people who will perhaps question, withdraw information, and not reveal their true opinions. Udwin’s film unfortunately presents misogyny as endemic to the lower classes, when the truth is, in fact, far from it. Would she have done such a film with someone like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also accused of sexual assault?

‘India’s Daughter’ fails in this manner to show rape as a layered problem — an extreme result of beliefs and practices towards women that have been solidified over centuries. But it doesn’t deserve banning because Udwin makes us do what we refuse to do every day. The people in the film are also India’s sons and daughters and India cannot claim parenthood over one while disowning the others. The state’s agitation over a film is alarming, for it doesn’t react so vehemently, so quickly, to the problem itself but is doing so to its portrayal instead.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 3:57:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-free-for-all/article6969657.ece

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