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Interview: LESLEE UDWIN, Director of Banned Documentary, India’s Daughter

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
June 2015
Interview: LESLEE UDWIN, Director of Banned Documentary, India’s Daughter

In a candid conversation with the filmmaker during her appearance in Atlanta, we attempt to probe through the fog of speculation, innuendos, and conspiracy theories surrounding India’s Daughter—to understand why she made this film, why she emphasized or excluded key players surrounding the gang rape of Jyoti Singh (“Nirbhaya”), and her views about India’s patriarchal culture.

The December 2012 gang rape of medical student Jyoti Singh on a private bus in New Delhi was so brutal that it triggered a spontaneous public eruption embroiling the city, and soon, the entire nation. For weeks thousands of civilians, mostly young, and many of them students, came together in the major metros to protest not just the sickening rape and mutilation of “Nirbhaya” (the moniker, meaning “fearless,” that the press and the public gave Singh till her identity was revealed), but also the broader lack of accountability and prosecution of rapists, and an entrenched patriarchal culture in certain circles that undermined women.

Leslee Udwin was among the millions worldwide who watched this unprecedented civilian uprising on their television screens. She says she was stirred sufficiently to do more than just shudder and move on. A victim of rape herself, she said she was inspired to use her background as an accomplished filmmaker to make a documentary exploring the mentality of the perpetrators of this heinous crime, and how it interplays with society at large. Elaborating on how the grit and resolve of the protestors inspired her to act, she has been quoted as saying, “Unprecedented numbers of ordinary men and women, day after day, faced a ferocious government crackdown that included tear gas, baton charges, and water cannons. They were protesting for my rights and the rights of all women. That gives me optimism. I can’t recall another country having done that in my lifetime.”

India’s Daughter, according to Udwin, was thus conceived.

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Mother and Father of Jyoti Singh.

What followed was two years of painstaking execution, during which Udwin was practically living in India—forging connections with officials and key individuals: the rapists, who were now on death row, the parents of Jyoti Singh, defense attorneys, prison psychiatrists, feminist leaders, and civic leaders, as well as esteemed members of the Varma Commission, created in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case to investigate the causes and solutions of sexual assaults.

All this and more, Udwin undertook with the hope that the resulting work would raise awareness and perhaps offer some revelations and insights about an issue that is, in essence, a global problem. She was optimistic.

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Convict Mukesh Singh.

Instead, the film was soon embroiled in a nationwide controversy. The uber patriarchal, misogynist, and callous statements of convict Mukesh Singh which were used in the film’s promos resulted in a massive backlash against it. While many silently applauded the film (watched on the Internet), many more questioned and condemned Udwin’s motivations, her attitude towards Indian society, and her methods. Innuendos and conspiracy theories flew around: Udwin was part of a global conspiracy to defame India; she paid Mukesh Singh for a contrived interview; she violated the “permission conditions” laid out by Tihar Jail, and so on.

Aspersions were cast on the film. For instance, why didn’t Udwin interview Awnindra Pandey, Jyoti Singh’s companion on the bus on that fateful night? After all, critics contended, he was the only eyewitness to the whole incident—besides the rapists themselves. (Udwin’s response: Of course she tried to interview Pandey! Over nearly two years, Udwin, with her Indian co-producer Dibang, pleaded with Awnindra to tell them his story, only to be rebuffed with a ‘no’ or demands for monetary compensation.)

Politicians jumped in, blaming the film for everything from maligning India to inciting rapists. No less than the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, revealed the flippancy with which the film was banned when he said (without having seen it), “When I heard about the documentary I was hurt. Under no circumstances should this be telecast. So we got a restraining order from the court.” And so, the justification for a ban in a democracy that is constitutionally obliged to protect freedom of speech, was reduced to appeasing the delicate sensibilities of those in power. Most recently, Prime Minister Modi himself, in an interview with Time, offered the following as one of the reasons for the ban: “The identity of the rape victim should not be revealed, which would have happened if this interview was allowed to be telecast.” Coming as it does after the victim’s own parents made her name public, and that Jyoti Singh’s name has been revealed on the internet (including on Wikipedia) since 2012, that tops the list of lame excuses!

This raises an interesting question: what is more damaging to the image of India—a professional filmmaker looking to raise the awareness on a crucial social issue, (no matter how disturbing it may be), or the political leaders of the nation who have offered spectacularly lame reasons to subvert freedom of expression?

This is not to suggest that there weren’t valid questions about Udwin’s intent, her process, and her choices in the making of India’s Daughter. Following are excerpts of our interview that raise several such questions. [Note: In the process of converting the verbal interview to text, answers have been edited slightly. The changes are strictly stylistic, for the sake of clarity and flow.]

Instead of a Q&A format, the narrative in India’s Daughter is built through the monologues of those interviewed. Is there a reason you chose not to present it as a Q&A, which would have offered a better clue of how the subject was directed or prodded?
The documentaries that have the narrator’s voice tend to be those where the filmmakers know what they want to say. The documentary they end up with is very much the documentary they thought they would end up with when they started off. With me, the first thing I felt was that I did not want to prejudge. I didn’t want to come in with preconceived notions. So my voice in this is irrelevant. It’s a genuine attempt to understand and analyse. Prejudgment can’t and mustn’t come into that. So from the beginning, I was absolutely determined that my voice would not be there. There would be no narrator. I wanted to hear directly from the participants in the story.

So you had not anticipated these shocking statements that Mukesh Singh and his defense attorneys made that are now being played around the world, portraying an abysmal patriarchal mindset?
No, I expected nothing. I had no idea. I went in with a set of 150 questions which I had thought through very carefully and had worked on with a psychiatrist and a criminologist. I had no idea what they were going to say.

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Satyendra, the tutor and friend.

You use Satyendra, the tutor and friend, quite a bit to provide a glimpse of the kind of person Jyoti was. How did you ascertain the veracity of Satyendra’s views of Jyoti, especially since there’s been some doubt cast not just by Awnindra Pandey, but by others as well, that maybe the relationship between them wasn’t as close as what your film depicts?
Well, the parents told me how close they were! I mean who are these experts really, who think they know so much? I would love to know. I mean, what kind of an arrogance is it, of Awnindra Pandey to say, “I’ve never heard of him, so he doesn’t exist”? Perhaps the fact that he’d never heard of him suggests that he wasn’t remotely close to Jyoti himself. I mean, Satyendra, I’ve been several times to the family with him, he is like a son to them. He’s incredibly close to them.

Is there a reason you interviewed only the defense attorneys but nobody from the prosecution?
Well, yes, because what would the prosecution tell me? The details of the case? I already knew those.

By the same token, the defense attorneys had a vested interest in saying the things they said. Projecting the idea that the rape victim is equally or more responsible for a rape serves their client.
Yes, but what the documentary shows is the truth, which is that they really believe this. They are not just mouthing legal arguments in defense of their clients. They believe this with all their heart.

But why do you think that they believe it? Because as I said, they have a vested interest to say those things.
But many people believe in India that a girl shouldn’t be out in the dark. Politicians believe it. Politicians have stood up in Parliament and said it.

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Yes, but would you say the views of the defense attorneys M. L. Sharma and A. P. Singh (pictured left and right, respectively) that find expression in your film are representative of modern India?
About modern India, no. But most of India is not yet modern. It’s struggling to be modern. But you see, if what the defense attorneys say in the film is not representative, if it is not ubiquitous in India, then what was the point of the protests? Why did people protest? What is more damaging to the image of India—a professional filmmaker looking to raise the awareness on a crucial social issue, (no matter how disturbing it may be), or the political leaders of the nation who have offered spectacularly lame reasons to subvert freedom of expression?

Maybe they were protesting the fact that rapists are getting away—that the social and legal system was stacked against the rape victims?
No, they were protesting about rape culture. Look at their placards. Their placards say it all: ‘It’s a dress, not a yes.’ All those placards tell you why they were protesting. And they were protesting because the attitude of the lawyers is commonplace, is recognizable. And indeed, I can tell you, I have had many emails from very honest, extraordinary men who have been very troubled. They’ve been almost confessional emails—saying to me, “What really shocked me is that I am a man who would never, ever dream of raping or forcing or coercing a woman into anything, and yet I recognize those thoughts, and that frightens me.”

In contrast, I would say that as someone who grew up in India till the age of twenty, I find Sharma’s and A. P. Singh’s comments reprehensible, and not representative of the culture I grew up in.
Have you heard such comments before?

On and off I guess...
So they are representative of the culture, but you have escaped that. You are an enlightened Indian male. And there are many like you. They were out there on the streets [in the protests against the Nirbhaya case].

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Leila Seth

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Amod Kanth

But then were you not concerned that giving so much prominence to these views could have the potential to misrepresent India?
Look, a documentary tells the truth, particularly when it simply asks people to tell their views. Now as for giving so much prominence….why does nobody ask me about the prominence I’ve given to the parents in this film? Far more prominence than the lawyers, far more prominence than the rapist. Why does nobody ask me about the prominence I have given to Gopal Subramanium and Leila Seth and Amod Kanth who say the most praising statements about India?

You didn’t think publicly airing interviews of people sentenced to death with appeal pending in the Indian Supreme Court had the potential to jeopardize justice?
No. The public can’t be meting out justice. The public can’t sit in on the appeal. The public have no role to play whatsoever in this.

It influences the players in…
The judges? Absolutely not! The judges are not babies. The judges are not idiots. The judges have very strict rules to follow. They are not allowed to consider anything that is not on record in the Sessions Court and the High Court. They know their regulations very well. These are mature, wise judges who know what the law says they’re allowed to take into account. Yet, I went to great lengths to ascertain we were [not compromising the legal process]. I actually showed the film to the prosecutors to confirm it would not undermine the legal process. And they told me there is no reason in the world not to show it before the Supreme Court has judged. If anybody had a vested interest in saying, “Don’t do it,” it would have been those prosecutors.

What sort of research did you undertake before making the film? Did you travel around India, for instance, to get an in-depth feel of attitudes and notions across the various social strata?
No, I wasn’t doing a doctoral thesis on Indian society. It’s the people who have commented on it, who think that it is a piece about Indian society. Now, the piece comes out and people discuss it and they say, do we think this, or do we think that about society? And I, after my two years journey do now have opinions, yes. But when I set out...that’s why I didn’t have my voice in it. I wasn’t there to make judgments, I wasn’t there to pronounce on Indian society. And I wasn’t there to give praise to the feminist movement in India, which seems to be their beef since they are now standing on the same side of the fence as the government in banning the film.

Nevertheless, you would have known that this film would have an impact in the community.
When I started out, I had no idea what I would end up with. No idea whatsoever. How could I know? I didn’t know what they were going to say. You only find out what a documentary film is during the edit. With a feature film, you go out with a script, you know the story, you know what you want to say. With a documentary, you find the story out from what people are saying; and in the edit you discover your insights.

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Sheila Dixit (Former Chief Minister of Delhi)

You can’t suggest that you didn’t have any role in shaping the documentary. I mean, you probably had hundreds of hours of footage.
Of course I made choices. I had 87 hours of footage and I had to cut that down to an hour. Yes, but by that time I had insights. So of course I chose the bits. Sheila Dixit (Former Chief Minister of Delhi), I interviewed for three hours. I chose a minute, a minute and a half? And I chose the one thing that seems to me to be an important metaphor for what I learned, the insights I gleaned.

 

So, did the responsibility weigh in on you, that out of the 87 hours of footage, what you edited would make a statement, which could be factual, and at the same time not possibly representative of India as a whole?
That is also a possibility. It’s still a possibility that the insights I gleaned are not representative of... I mean, India is a vast country. It’s a country in which several time frames coexist side by side, apart from anything else.

So then, would you say that the people who give so much credence to your film in forming opinions about Indian culture shouldn’t, because it’s just one small snapshot of society?
It’s a snapshot, but it certainly seems to have hit a raw nerve. There must be some truth in it. That’s what I would say. Otherwise, it wouldn’t hit such a raw nerve. People would simply dismiss it and would say it’s of no consequence. It’s because it’s of great consequence…

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Younger Indians protesting.

Given the rise of the BJP and its nationalistic agenda and the entrenched patriarchal attitudes in India, do you think we’ll see change in the foreseeable future in how women are treated?
I think that the hope resides with the younger Indians, and I think that the protests were mostly led by young people. And I do see hope and I do see optimism. It’s what took me there in the first place. I didn’t go there to make a grim story about a rape. I went there motivated to amplify the voices of the protestors, and they were optimistic voices because they were talking about and demanding change—that’s optimism. And do I see a change? Of course. There is already a change; this documentary has already transformed individuals. That’s a pretty important thing for it to have done.

Does the ban on the film not make you feel hopeless about it?
No, the ban will be lifted. Because no court is going to keep this ban going, because it doesn’t have a single legal leg to stand on. The ban is a reflex action by a government that seems to want to bury its head in the sand, that seems to want to massage its international image. Well, that isn’t going to pass muster, it just won’t.

Are there any efforts from the BBC or other quarters to get the ban in India lifted?
No. Not that I know of, and I think I would know. I don’t think the BBC are particularly involved in the question. I mean, India did ask the BBC not to show the film, but I think the BBC just laughed up its sleeve, as one would, because it is a wholly naïve thought that you can somehow tell other countries to trash democracy just because you do. That’s ridiculous.

Do you plan to make a film about rape in Western countries? Why or why not?
No. Because I’ve given my time, two years is a very long time to be away from my young children, to be away from my comforts, to have gone into a debt of 128,000 pounds personally. I won’t make any another documentary actually, for a long time. If the question is, why didn’t I make a film about rape in England, then the answer is very clear: because there were no protests in England of the admirable magnitude that there were in India. And if those protests had happened in any other country, whichever the country, about any other offense against a woman, I would have gone to that country and made the documentary there, whether that country had a chip on its shoulder or not. That’s the truth. And in any case, you cannot say to Van Gogh, why did he paint sunflowers, why didn’t he paint daffodils? Excuse me, it’s an artist’s prerogative to make the story that moves that artist’s heart.

From your perspective that is true, and it is a perfectly valid perspective. But from the perspective of nationalistic Indians, you as a British national coming to India to make a film about an embarrassing facet of the society can be touchy.
Yes, but these nationalistic Indians who are complaining don’t make films and they know nothing about making films. They should learn about what motivates a filmmaker before they start telling a filmmaker what to do.

Right. Did you ever personally feel unsafe while you were in India making this documentary?
Never. Although I have to tell you I was threatened. I still didn’t feel unsafe.

So if not for the political challenges of you being back in India, you wouldn’t mind roaming around in India?
I’ve done it many times, I’ve done it recently, I’ve done it just before I made the documentary. And yeah, if it weren’t for my being concerned about being let out of India again, I would go back like a shot, absolutely.

I have zero tolerance for rape wherever it happens.

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Statistically, as you acknowledge, rape is a global issue. But what in your opinion is the qualitative difference in the occurrence of rape in India versus let’s say in England or other countries?
None. Zero difference, and I have zero tolerance for rape wherever it happens, I have zero tolerance for gender inequality wherever it happens, I have zero tolerance for women working equal hours and doing equal work to men and being paid less, I have zero tolerance to women not being represented in governments. And that happens the world over; there is no qualitative difference. I am patronized every time I look at the television and see a war being waged somewhere. I am affronted and furious that I have had no say in the wholesale killing of human beings. And until and unless my gender is equally represented and these atrocities go on, I have a right to say this is a male preserve, it’s a male decision to sort out conflicts in the way they do. And I say, not in my name, thank you very much. Or, not for my children to inherit a world which is designed by men. I will not accept it, why should I? It is absolutely a violation of my human rights as a woman to be treated any less equally than a man is treated.

Knowing what you now know, would you have done anything differently in how you went about making the film and the final cut that you chose?
No, absolutely not. I have made a film that is true to my métier. To the way I go about making films. I tell the truth as I perceive it. I have made a very balanced film. I have made a film that’s both positive and negative, about a culture, a culture that is actually common in the world. A male culture, a patriarchal culture—not an Indian culture but a male culture and I believe that this film has a great deal of forceful truth in it. And if it’s shocking, so be it. If it’s shocking, then perhaps shock is what we need to shove us out of our lethargy and our apathy and our silence on the greatest unfinished business of our time—the violation of human rights of women.


Parthiv N. Parekh is the editor-in-chief of Khabar. Credits: Neha Negandhi, for arranging the interview.



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