Leslee Udwin, Director of the controversially banned documentary India’s Daughter, was back in London for a few days before leaving for New York, where her film will be formally released on March 9. Her voice hoarse with fatigue, Ms. Udwin responded to the issues the film has raised. Excerpts from an interview withParvathi Menon.
Your film has been banned in India for an interview with an accused rapist, and for “showing India in a bad light”. How do you respond to that?
The ban is utterly beyond my comprehension because what this film says is like a mirror held up to what Prime Minister Modi has said in all his statements about gender equality since he came to power. He has spoken about resetting the moral compass in India, about supporting women attain equality, and finding ways to educate women, has total synergy with the film. We are saying the same thing.
He must have these moral values, otherwise he would not be saying these things. How does that square with India bowing out of showing the film as it is?
All I wanted was to say to the world is that India led by example, now follow India’s lead. This was the point of my film and campaign.
You had appealed directly to Mr. Modi to repeal the ban. Did you hear from him?
We haven’t heard from Mr. Modi yet. The government is inviting the world to point fingers at India, and call it undemocratic and unconstitutional. Why are they doing this? Why are they intent on committing international suicide? All I want to say to the world through my film and campaign is this: India led by example, now follow India’s lead.
This film can still be shown if they change their mind by tomorrow night [International Women’s Day]. India will then be holding its head high to move forward with an agenda to put women in the spotlight of getting equality – which is unfinished business the world over.
If they do not lift this ban, it will be said that on Women’s International Day, there were to be seven countries holding hands for global equality, and India has bowed out.
The India’s Daughter campaign, which the film was designed to unleash worldwide, will be launched globally on March 9. Every country in the world will take this film forward with the message “Our women are in trouble in every country.”
Why focus on India when gender discrimination and rape is a global issue?
It was not the horrific rape that made me come to India. The extraordinary, courageous and unprecedented protests that followed made me think: “My God, they are fighting for my rights in India.” I was so grateful. I have myself been raped. It is not surprising -- one in five women globally have been raped. So I am one of the 20 per cent.
The supreme irony is that my film has got statistics at the end of it of offences against women in every country in the world. By their ban, the government forced the BBC version, and not the India version, to be leaked onto YouTube. If you ban something, the first thing you do is to make every person in the world see a pirated version. And that is what has happened. The tragedy for me is that the pirated copy that went up on YouTube does not have the global statistics, and for a reason that is mundane and ridiculous. The BBC Storyville has a house style that doesn’t allow them to put statistics on a film. It upsets and angers me that people in India would have seen the film without those statistics.
There are three version of the film. In the BBC version, the credits are shorter and there are no statistics. The international version is the full version with all the credits and the statistics. It also names the rape victim, as her name is all over the international media, and even in Wikipedia. The third is the Indian version in which the victim has not been names. That is the law in India, which we all respect. The parents wanted her name out of the Indian version but agreed that it be carried in the international version.
So now the YouTube version has got so many heads that I am trying every day to cut them down with a sword. My team has pulled down the online version thousands of times because I want to obey that ban, as it is India’s law. But unfortunately it has now got into Torrent.
How do you respond to the allegation that you did not follow due legal processes?
I am a producer of 20 years standing who does her due diligence. I am not a fly-by-night operator.
I followed the legal due process in every respect. I complied with the permissions: they are cast iron, which is why I have actually released the copies of the permissions so people can have a look and see what it says. It does not give editorial control to the Ministry of Home Affairs or to the prison. It allows them only to reflect and approve of potential breeches of prison security. A five-person committee from Tihar was constituted to look at the raw, unedited footage we shot in Tihar, every single frame. On December 9 and 10, they saw every frame of the 16-hour footage.
There was one and only one comment they made. There was a moment when Vinay Sharma, one of the accused, was looking to the camera and said something to the cameraman. The committee said that piece should not be in the film because he hasn’t signed the consent form to be interviewed. And I said fine. On nothing else did they made a comment.
So I got permission to film the doctors, I got permission from the police (through their Delhi PRO Rajan Bhagat), I got permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs and Tihar jail; and consent from Mukesh Singh to shoot that interview.
On the issue of the interview being sub-judice, it is not so and I will tell you why. I sought the opinion of at least five senior High Court and Supreme Court lawyers, who each told me verbally that the film would not prejudice the hearings. I then went to the trouble and expense of commissioned a legal opinion from two senior and well-known ex-Supreme Court judges. I had no idea what they would say when I went to them. I will not mention their names because an opinion sought by a client has a sort of legal privilege. They too said there is nothing in the documentary that could prejudice the Supreme Court case.
Not only that. I also took the risk of showing the film to the state prosecution team, to be absolutely sure, because if even one piece of evidence in the film could prejudice the case, I could never live with myself for the rest of my life. The team said the documentary is one hundred percent accurate to the case. “We are amazed by how balanced it is,” they said. They asked me to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, and said they had no reason whatsoever that the film not be shown while the appeal is going on. I have a disclaimer on every version.
Did you feel threatened by the government?
I had a screening of the film for senior editors in Delhi on Tuesday, March 3. A journalist came running up to me and showed me on her mobile news that an FIR had been issued against me. It was around 6 pm and the first thing I did was to call around seven lawyers whom I knew in Delhi. I was due to leave on Wednesday, the following night. Every one of them told me to leave on the next plane to England. They all said that my passport would be taken away, and I would not be able to get back. I took this very seriously. And then decided to sit it out. If I left early, they will think I fled, that I was in the wrong and had something to hide. I wanted to be able to proudly hold up the ticket of the flight I took and show them it was booked three weeks before any of this started. Despite that there has been a total smear campaign to say I fled.
What about the allegation that you made the film for commercial gain, that you paid Mukesh Singh for the interview, and that he did not know he was being filmed?
I will not allow them to besmirch my name and say that I made it for commercial gain. I came using my own money out of which I paid my crew. In the second leg of the project I had to take money out of my children’s school account. In the third let, BBC came forward and said they would make a contract and gave me £90,000. The film has cost £210,00. I am in debt for £120,000, and had to borrow from my mother and a friend. I will make some money on it over the years because I will be selling the documentary to other countries. I gave it free to NDTV, because I told myself that I would not make a penny out of the Indian version.
And I can tell you hand-on-heart that we have not paid one rupee to anyone we interviewed.
It is absolutely untrue that Mukesh was talking in monosyllables and that therefore I filmed him secretly. He was talking fluently from the beginning about himself and conditions in the jail. We never did any secret filming. As a world-renowned producer who has won a British Oscar, I would never do a thing like that.
There was no secret filming of Mukesh at all. In fact, we needed to put a mike on him.
Are the parents of Nirbhaya still with you?
Absolutely. Just two days ago I got a message from the father that made me cry. “When you walk the right path, there will be obstacles, there will be thorns” he said.
The parents agreed to her name being mentioned in the international version, but not in the Indian one. At least a year ago the father told me: “I am not ashamed. It is wrong that rape should adhere to the rape victim. She suffered enough without shame being put on her. It is the rapist who carries the shame, and the society that the rapist has been encouraged by. All of them deserve that shame.”