We dedicate this article to Jyoti Singh Pandey whose voice is missing in the controversial documentary “India’s Daughter” and to all her friends and family who hold her close, especially her parents, who courageously shared their personal pain and experience that came into being in 2012.
“Our daughter’s name is Jyoti Singh. In death she has lit a torch…she posed a question. What is the meaning of ‘a woman?’ I wish that whatever darkness there is in the world should be dispelled by this light.”
-Badri Singh (Jyoti’s father)
This article contains solely our (the authors) views. We do not consider ourselves film critic experts. We do not represent any group or entity when writing this piece. We hope this article will help guide a critical discussion for viewers of the 2015 film “India’s Daughter.”
“India’s Daughter” is a documentary by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin on the 2012 violent gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey. It has received mixed reactions from applause to banning.
The film received positive reviews from Sonia Faleiro in The Guardian and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent. Falerio called the film “essential viewing” and Alibhai-Brown says the film brings attention to “the global war against women.” On the contrary, activist Kavita Krishnan criticized the film stating it reinforces Indian patriarchal attitudes towards women. The Indian government also weighed in and banned the film saying it would “incite violence against women,” and it was “an international conspiracy to defame India.” Other Indian authorities claimed that airing the documentary might make it difficult to maintain public law and order.
We believe that screening this film in a vacuum, without providing appropriate background, pointing out some of the film’s shortcomings, and thinking critical about it, could do more harm than good. It is timely and important, to have a guided discussion; something the film fails to do with its abrupt ending. Banning the film or continuing to show it without a critical discussion does little to educate and challenge the way some people think about rape and gender based violence. Additionally, for viewers who are being introduced to issues of gender-based violence, this film can leave them with more questions than answers and without any tools to navigate the complex situation.
This is not to say “India’s Daughter” is a failure. In fact, it has many strengths. Primarily, it has caught people’s attention and has ignited a global discussion on human rights and gender-based violence. “India’s Daughter” highlighted the Pandey family’s celebration of the birth of a daughter (which, is rare in Indian society) and their drive to support and educate her in the face of patriarchy. Jyoti’s mother, Asha, explains how her daughter’s birth was “celebrated like she was a boy.” Many viewers could point to this family as a great role model in the fight for gender equality as many female fetuses continue to be aborted in India. The strong societal preference for a son over a daughter still continues to plague India. The film subtly challenges this gender discrimination ideology and also wonderfully touches on male feminism or “progressive” men, particularly through Badri Singh’s (Jyoti’s father) and her male friend’s narrative accounts.
Furthermore, we admired the inclusion of the footage of the nationwide protest against rape that occurred immediately after the 2012 Delhi rape case in India. This response was a milestone in the anti-rape movement where protesters called for justice, gender solidarity, and better treatment girls and women through education and advocacy. These protests created an equal space, where both men and women participated and voiced their concerns. Other victims of rape also came forward and demanded justice, protection, and gender equality. The silence and social stigma around speaking about rape was slowly starting to erode during this period of 2012, as well as after the release of the film in 2015.
Yet, in our opinion, “India’s Daughter” still falls short of being a pillar in the “anti-rape” dialogue and does not fully support the human rights movement.
Soap Box for the Rapist
One of the most glaring shortcomings of the film was the imbalance of voices between Jyoti’s parents and Mukesh Singh, one of the convicted rapists and the driver of the bus (where the gang-rape occurred). The media can be a force for justice, yet we felt this film gave the rapist a speaking platform. The film did give airtime to Jyoti’s family, but it was brief in comparison to the time Mukesh received.
For instance, the film opens with an interview with Jyoti’s parents who explain how proud they were of their daughter’s educational and career success as a medical student. The film briefly personalized Jyoti as a feminist, hard working humanitarian but provided no photo of Jyoti, no interview with her friends or the friend who was with her the night the rape took place. Her life was not fully honored, in the film, she was not remembered beyond her career aspiration. For instance, we know very little about her character like, “Who was she? What did she like doing?” But, on the contrary, the film spent a lot of time on Mukesh, his life and mindset.
The heavy focus on Mukesh’s way of thinking and his beliefs would have been fine if the film explained his behavior forms a theoretical, anthropological or academic standpoint and addressed questions such as, “Why does the rapist think this way?” The film thoroughly explained that he does think in a certain way, but did not explain why.
“India’s Daughter” attempts to expose the misogynistic mentality of India, but fails to provide an explanation for why such exposure is needed beyond India, at a global level. For instance, might the perpetrators’ or rapists’ perspective in sexual violence tells us more about how we might prevent rape by understanding how gang rapists desire for a woman’s body even in the presence of another male?
Lack of Voices
The emphasis on Mukesh’s account silences the voices of others who could have provided a more thorough, less biased account of what happened that night.
For example, the film only includes the voices of a few men (e.g. Jyoti’s father and her close friend, the rapist, and the defendants (lawyer), and fails to engage with men who do not rape and men who do not just think like defendant’s lawyer or rapists like Mukesh. We were left wondering, “Do all Indian men think rape is okay? Where are the men who condemn gender-based violence and speak out against rape in India?”
The voice of Jyoti’s male friend (the who one accompanied her to the movies) is also left out. He is never interviewed or mentioned and we do not know where he is on his healing journey as a survivor of such trauma? What is his relationship with Jyoti’s parents in the midst of the unpredictability surrounding the outcome of the sentencing of the rapists accused for murdering their innocent daughter? He was a victim of violence too and yet, his voice was denied.
A further consequence of focusing more on Mukesh is that the “it was her fault she was raped” narrative is perpetuated and unfortunately, the film did not include the voices of strong feminist advocates who could have removed the blame of rape from Joyti and explain why her actions were not reckless. Instead, the film reinforces a sexist idea of how women should and should not act through dominant patriarchy. The consequences of being treated horrifically when not acting in “appropriate ways” in India are described.
For instance, one of the defendant’s lawyer M.L. Sharma said, “In our society we never allow our girls to come out from the house after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening with any unknown person.”
He goes on to expresses his belief that rape is triggered by women and thus, women are deserving of it. This type of a response to the cruel and vicious attack of Jyoti’s female body further oppresses young girls and women who are denied a voice or space to have conversations around rape.
It is further solidified by the defendants lawyer’s remarks:
“Our culture is the best. In our culture there is no place for a woman.” Which leads to the question, “Is this why the film fails to provide the female perspective because there is no place for her view?”
Perhaps that is why other women’s voices were absent too. For instance, the film does not allow women to use their own agency and resources (inner strength) to speak out against rape. It recognizes rape as a sub-culture that some men live-in (e.g. the living situations of the rapists as portrayed in the film).
Other perspectives that could have added to provide a more complex and robust exploration of the rape case but were absent include: the prosecution, society’s opinion on women’s independence, and the doctors in Singapore who tried to save Jyoti’s life before she died. Including the expertise of psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists would have helped viewers understand the roots of India’s misogyny. Instead, the film briefly alludes to gender based violence in India with a few statistics. This is problematic because again, the filmmaker does not include academics or activists from India who are directly engaged with grassroots work.
In addition to absent individual perspectives and voices, the film also left out explorations of systemic issues around rape. If the film was to give context to the rape case and illustrate the systemic issues, we would not be left wondering: “How is rape reported in India?” “Why might rape go unreported?” “What are the cultural realities and gender relations in India that are important for us to understand this case?” “What is the difference between boarding a private versus a public bus?” “Were Jyoti’s actions unusual?” The filmmaker assumed the audience understood the nuances of Indian culture and the place of women in that society.
Instead of exploring the complexities and nuances that lead people to rape, the film suggested a mono-cause for rape; a poor man’s mentality. However, rape does not occur in a vacuum and perpetrators do not on their own come to believe that it is appropriate to rape. Rather, institutional forces, cultural norms, and political structures influence and shape society and the individuals within it. Legal systems, impunity, corrupt policing system and judicial system, sexist penal code, family life, drugs, alcohol, and cultural beliefs (such as castism, classism, racism, gender discrimination, dowries and female feticide and infanticide) all intersect to play a part in creating a rapist. It is not simply the result of “a poor man’s mentality.”
Rape is a weapon that is used to enforce boundaries and define what the perpetrator believes to be “appropriate” behavior; thus, it happens in different contexts for different reasons. Yet, the film failed to address “Why and how this rape happened?” “In what way is rape used in India?” “How do certain ideologies of caste, class, religion and gender play a role?” “Why do rapes go underreported?” or “How does a society develop to allow this to happen?”
Purpose of the Film
Many of our questions and instantiates come from the film’s lack of a clear direction. Very little information is given about the producer and her goals in creating “India’s Daughter.” From watching the film, we do not know who the filmmaker is: Udwin’s background, her objectives, and her relationship to India are also unknown. Not knowing this information, we wonder if as a foreigner in India, Udwin may have brought with her biases and binaries such as the East/West divide. Could she have brought with her the neo-colonial view of “saving” Indian women? Ultimately, we wonder what her underlying motives and intentions were in covering this topic and particularly this recent case.
We continue to interrogate and question why this documentary film has been produced in such a way and whether the purpose is to educate and create awareness, and if so, for whom? Without a clear thesis, we are left to infer that India’s Daughter aims is to create some sort of a movement to save the future of girls and women in Indian society, who might walk alone at night or watch a movie (like India’s Daughter) with a male counterpart.
This is a global problem
India’s Daughter focuses on a single extreme case and as such does not place the problem of rape in the broader global context of the fight for equal rights for women. Jyoti’s case is not an isolated case, and rape occurs outside of India too; women, to some degree, remain second-class people everywhere, and to our knowledge, no country has achieved 100% gender equality. When the issue of rape in India is disconnected from the global rape pandemic, the “othering” discourse (us vs. them) comes into play and people may overlook injustices at home.
If the purpose of “India’s Daughter” was to help prevent the attacks on women’s bodies around the world and address gender inequalities and the discrimination girls and women, it could have referenced the international UN campaign HeForShe. The HeForShe campaign highlights how women around the globe are demanding for gender equality and safety, but more importantly equal rights to that of men.
Strategically the campaign focuses on involving men to support women in their struggles because this is not only a woman’s issue. The HeForShe campaign for gender equality (launched by the famous Emma Waton’s speech at the United Nations on September 20, 2014) could have been one way to question further the struggles faced by women all around the world, not just in India and not just rape. India became the most extreme example of gender-based violence through Jyoti, but the attitudes seen in the film permeate the globe beyond India.
Such a call to action, with suggested solutions to gendered violence or sexism would have helped the viewer feel empowered, instead of hopeless. Hopelessness is a feeling that many may experience at the end of the film considering the overall takeaway message was overly simple: “Rapist are not nice and this situation is sad,” or “rape is the fault of the woman.” The film does not seem to give safety for girls and women around the globe. Instead it positioned girls and women at more risk, by expressing the perpetrators/defendants perspective to be “OK or tolerable or acceptable to some level.”
The film does so little to honor Jyoti’s life, it did not help bring justice to her family, and we feel it does not create a space to highlight the voices of victims who share a similar story of rape. Thus, we hope viewers consider the questions below while viewing the film “India’s Daughter.”
Discussion Guide for the Film “India’s Daughter”
- Should we be concerned as “outsiders” (e.g. South Asian diaspora) with saving India’s daughter?
- Whose voices are represented and not represented in the film beyond the ones we touched on?
- How could a counter narrative to the film be used to engage with young boys and men?
- How can the West stand in solidarity with those in the East without creating a binary, for example, rape happens over there and this mindset is not shared on the side of the West?
- What are your thoughts around how the defendant’s lawyer describes the good Indian daughter and specifically how she should act obedient, not dress a certain way or go out late at night? What about the good Indian son’s expectations that would allow us to focus on the larger rape culture which no one wishes to talk about (e.g. seen as a taboo subject)?
Gopa, A. (2015, March 8). International Women’s Day: How we discuss rape in India and around the world. The Real News.
Kaur, M. (2014, January 6). Protest for a pause. Tribune India: Spectrum.
Kaur. M. (2014, September 14). Hollow vengeance: Why four hangings won’t change India’s horrific culture of rape and torture. Foreign Policy.
Merelli, A. (2015, March 5). No, Jyoti Singh is not India’s daughter. Quartz.
Wendy Aujla is an applied sociologist pursuing her Ph.D. in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta. Her current research focuses on conceptualizing so-called “honor” crimes. Wendy regularly writes on domestic violence and initiatives occurring across the globe. She can be found on Twitter at @waujla and can also be reached at email@example.com