This post has been updated. See note below.
Finding redemption in tragedy is what we humans do in order to move on. It’s what great storytellers often do. But, for some, there’s an additional drive to effect change in order to make sure that tragedy doesn’t happen again, or, at least, not as often. That’s what we call “social issue” documentary, sometimes pejoratively to suggest conventional, good-for-you, filmmaking.
But more and more social issue docs have shed that tension — some call it a false dichotomy but I think that’s more wishful than real — to transcend the form, as is the case with India’s Daughter, which I saw last night at its U.S. premiere. You’ve probably heard of this documentary, directed by Leslee Udwin, about the heinous 2012 gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a young medical student in Delhi. The case provoked mass protests in India, and caused a lot of soul-searching about the place of women in that country, as well as real change to the laws there.
Now, Udwin’s film has forced India, and the rest of the world, to take an even closer look at what happened and what it all means. It’s such a sensitive issue that India banned the broadcast of the film as “objectionable content.” The Indian channel, NDTV, that was going to show it, aired a black screen instead as a symbol of protest. It is not often that a documentary makes waves internationally, having a cataclysmic effect that draws the attention of millions, and provokes a supposedly democratic government to suppression.
Here in the U.S., the premiere had a solemn, powerful beginning, when actress Meryl Streep quieted the audience at the packed theater at Baruch College. She eloquently denounced “violence that is sanctioned by misogyny” and spoke of how the victim was now also “our daughter,” before leading a candle lighting.
The film itself is solid storytelling, as Udwin retraces the crime and covers all the bases, interviewing Singh’s parents, one of the rapists, the families of the rapists, and an ever-widening circle of Indian officials, from police to lawyers to government officials. The film is comprehensive without being exhausting. And the recreations are mercifully brief and abstract, the most compelling being the simple depiction of a bus traveling through the night, which was where the crime happened, an ominous image that makes me shudder just writing these words.
How could these men do such a terrible thing? That’s the question asked throughout the film. Udwin skillfully reveals as much of an answer as she can: lawyers who spout insanely degrading theories about women, a rapist who clearly sees women as subhuman. And then she takes things to another level by providing the stark context of the rapists’ lives, and the poverty and hopelessness from which they came. We are even introduced to one of the rapists’ wives, which really threw me for a loop. This is not a black-and-white tale. There is great complexity here.
The film, like the crime, is one that can be viewed from many different angles, from the personal all the way up to a society and class system going through difficult transition. Singh is a victim of terrible men, the film shows, but also of a rift between old and new India.
The complexity is further revealed in news that came up just today; the young man, Avanindra Pandey, who was with Singh and was also attacked, has made statements criticizing the film, calling it “fake.” The perils of representation of a crime in India — especially when it’s done by an English woman — are so layered that it can be hard to grasp.
Here’s what Udwin told me in response to his allegations: “Awnindra was begged by us for over a year to interview for the documentary. From the outset, he made it clear he expected to be paid for it. We, in turn, made it clear that it was a social doc in the public interest and that we were not paying for any interviews. At a certain point, he told us he was willing to meet and discuss and then he pulled out of that meeting saying he simply could not interview because he was “in trouble.”
“We had made Awnindra aware that we had an interview with Mukesh Singh in which he had said Awnindra simply hid behind the seats and we suggested to Awnindra that he should come and put forward his side of the story. He had every opportunity to do so.”
Udwin included more details that suggest even deeper, disturbing layers to this particular part of the story but I cut them because it feels endless.
As for the film itself, it’s not Udwin’s obligation to tell the entirety of this never-ending story. At its center, the film focuses on Singh. That’s my most vivid takeaway from the film: impressions of a promising, seemingly wonderful young woman and her parents. They provide the heart of this film. Their pain and perseverance cut through the headlines.
After the film screened, Udwin spoke of how Singh’s father told her “when you walk on the right path, there will always be obstacles” and that she would encounter “thorns” along the way. The heartbreaking implication is that his daughter suffered an unforgiving path that ended her life. Udwin’s path is a different one — although it’s worth noting here that I’ve read that she is a rape survivor herself — and she spoke movingly at the premiere about the personal cost of making this film to her, and her family.
Here, in the U.S., you can order the film from the website of distributor Women Make Movies when it’s released later this week. Here’s the link. If you want to pre-order the film, you can go here. India’s Daughter will also air on Independent Lens
in July in the Fall.
Update March 13,2015: Correct broadcast schedule for India’s Daughter on Independent Lens.