Udwin's Delhi gangrape documentary lacks perspective, has only shock value

Don't let the hashtags fool you. Competent as Leslee Udwin's documentary, India's Daughter, may be, it is not a must-see. Udwin is no Truman Capote, Mukesh Singh is not the face of evil and if you've been watching the news since the Delhi gangrape of 2012, there's nothing in India's Daughter that you don't already know.

Chances are, if the Indian government hadn't threatened to sue BBC and there hadn't been a parliamentary debate filled with bluster, India's Daughter would have remained as obscure as most documentaries. Instead, all the controversy has made for fantastic publicity for what is an unremarkable documentary.

Of course, BBC is not above milking the moment for all its worth. The film was to be shown on 8th March in Britain and India, but the date for the British telecast was brought forward and yesterday, when India's Daughter aired on British TV, it began with this slide: "A Delhi court has blocked the showing of the film in India." Unfortunately, this makes Udwin's documentary sound far more provocative and interesting than it actually is.

India's Daughter is about the 2012 Delhi gangrape. The victim, who tragically succumbed to the injuries sustained during rape, was nicknamed Nirbhaya since Indian law requires rape survivors' identities be protected.

On the whole, India's Daughter is inoffensive and bland, offering neither new perspective nor information, which is surprising since Udwin has been working on this film for a while. From the use of voice-overs, to the unimaginative cinematography, dreary pace and bland storytelling, everything about Udwin's documentary is staid and old-fashioned. However, that is no reason to ban India's Daughter.

Unwittingly, what India's Daughter does offer the Indian viewer is a reminder that this country's government has repeatedly failed its people regardless of the establishment's political leanings. India's Daughter has many shots of the protest marches that surged through Delhi after the gang rape, as well as footage of water cannons and tear gas being aimed at protestors, and policemen beating people up on the streets. One woman who attended the protests described the scene as a "war zone".

Screenshot from the documentary.

Screenshot from the documentary.

The current government has mishandled the issue of India's Daughter's telecast. The previous government made a spectacular mess by responding with force to public outrage, instead of empathy. To quote the expert hagglers of Bangkok, it's all "same same but different".

However, Udwin's area of interest is not freedom of expression, but one specific case of gangrape.

Despite the dramatic subject, there's no tension in India's Daughter and the fault for this possibly lies with the editing. There's a lot of interesting material that Udwin gathered through her interviews. For instance, there lurks within India's Daughter the potential of a fascinating story weaving together the experiences and thoughts of the women who stand at the periphery of the Delhi gangrape case. Neither does Udwin delve into the prison psychiatrist's chilling conclusion that rape is "an enjoyment mode" for many seemingly average men. Sadly, all the information in India's Daughter is arranged in a manner that presents facts without analysis.

Instead Udwin relies upon shock value to keep her viewer interested and so, while detailing the injuries inflicted upon Nirbhaya by the rapists, the audience is shown Nirbhaya's mother's tear-stained face. It's such ham-handed emotional manipulation that it's cringe-inducing. Only the dignity and grace of Nirbhaya's parents — particularly her mother, Asha — saves India's Daughter.

Udwin also subjects her audience to an unnecessary reconstruction of the gangrape. We're shown a bus on Delhi roads, its darkened interiors, silhouettes of men and shots of blood on gravel. It's entirely unnecessary since the documentary has Singh recounting what happened. One of the more distressing moments in his recap is when Singh says that after they'd dumped Pandey and her companion on the side of the road and driven off, the juvenile rapist said to Ram Singh, "Ustad, woh maine phek diya" (Ustad, I threw them away). He's talking about Nirbhaya's intestines, which he'd ripped out of her body while raping her.

The defence lawyers, ML Sharma and AP Singh, aren't disturbed by details like this. Sharma casually and almost cheerfully tells Udwin, "He would like to create a damage. He will put his hand. Daalo. Maara."

That the two defence lawyers are misogynists and offensive should not be news to anyone in India, but their smarminess is the most outrageous and disturbing part of India's Daughter. Sharma has said in past media interviews that he thought Nirbhaya deserved to be raped because she was taking public transport and was out at night with a man who was not a family member. "Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady," he'd said. Singh is as newsworthy and appalling. He said that he would burn his daughter alive if she had premarital sex and in India's Daughter, he unequivocally declares that he stands by that statement.

Even though the attitudes of the lawyers isn't a revelation to those who have been following the 2012 Delhi gang rapecase, it's still sickening and stomach-churning to listen to Sharma and AP Singh smugly explain Indian culture to Udwin. Sharma is particularly quote-worthy.

"In our society, we never allow our girls to come out from house after 6.30 or 7.30 or 8.30 in the evening with any unknown person."

"You are talk as a friend, a man and woman. Sorry that doesn't place in our society."

"A woman means I immediately put the sex in his eyes."

"We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman."

"She should not be put on the streets just like food."

"If you put your diamond on the street, certainly the dog will take it out. You can't stop it."

What Udwin misses (or chooses to ignore) is that the lawyers and Singh are all posturing. They're giving her lectures on Indian culture and mansplaining the country away, for Udwin's benefit and because it serves their purpose. Unfortunately, Udwin doesn't bring in enough Indian voices that can offer a critical and analytical perspective to Sharma and Singh's points of view.

The two Indian feminists who appear in India's Daughters are Leila Seth and Kavitha Krishnan, and they don't get enough screen time. Seth and Krishnan should have been the ones providing context, rather than Dr Maria Misra, who didn't say anything objectionable but neither was she able to raise the questions that were necessary to focus India's Daughter upon the women's rights' movement that suddenly and powerfully entered mainstream media and conversation because of Nirbhaya's case.

Thanks to Udwin being enthralled by the misogyny of Singh and his incandescently repugnant lawyers, India's Daughter focuses its attention upon one rapist. (Curiously, the other men who raped Nirbhaya don't get a word in even though they were reportedly interviewed.) Yet, by the end of the film, all we have is a superficial understanding of these men. We're no closer to understanding what spurs them or why their gender biases are so well-insulated from common sense.

India's Daughter barely touches upon one of the key issues that inform violence against women today: the terrible friction that arises between women who want to claim a independence and the gender discrimination that is deeply-embedded in patriarchy and contemporary Indian culture. As Rukmini Shrinivasan astutely observes in her analysis, "What is epidemic is the culturally embedded restriction on women’s autonomy, across caste, class and religious groups."

Udwin's coup was that she'd got permission to interview those found guilty and convicted of gangraping Nirbhaya. Singh says things like, "A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy". He complains there have been far worse crimes than the 2012 gangrape and that it's because gym instructor Sharma took steroids that he was inclined to extreme violence.

Strangely enough, when it comes to women and Nirbhaya, Singh seems to have exactly the same opinions as those spouted by his lawyers. He also insists he only drove the bus while she was raped by the other five men (and therefore shouldn't be hanged). Udwin doesn't explore the effect that Ram Singh dying in police custody had on Mukesh, the younger brother, which could have been revealing.

Still, India's Daughter is the first time we're getting to see or hear a rapist speak freely, which is novel for India. Sadly, nothing Singh says in his interviews is surprising. Until you reach the 53-minute mark.

This is the money quote, Singh's take on the effect of 2012 gangrape case:

"The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won't leave the girl like we did. They will kill her."

Understandably, Udwin found this sentiment chilling and her documentary takes Singh at face value, as though he's the spokesperson for all Indian rapists. But the fact is, he isn't.

Singh is a man convicted of a crime, sentenced to death, hoping for a pardon and this is his justification for why he should be pardoned. He's arguing against the death penalty, saying it won't be a deterrent, because he doesn't want to be hanged and neither does he want to end up like his brother, Ram. With the public baying for his blood, he's not likely to score a sympathy vote, so he offers a different reason to not hang him: it will make other rapists more desperate, which will threaten the very people whom the court is trying to placate by hanging him.

From the threat that Singh tosses out to society, it's evident he's hoping to intimidate us, the every women of India. Who knows if the underlying hope was that it would scare people and bring about a shift in public opinion, which has determinedly been baying for the death sentence. Perhaps he thinks he'll be successful because he agrees with Sharma, that "a female is just like a flower."

Except not all flowers are delicate. Some are rather hardy, like the orchid. And let's not forget those that are carnivorous... .

(with inputs from Liz Wells and Kath Hamper, in UK.)

Updated Date: Mar 06, 2015 10:03 AM