The Selective Amnesia Of ‘India’s Daughter’ – What The Film Conveniently Ignores!

Posted on March 5, 2015 in Media, Society, Staff Picks

By Shivani Nag:

I finally got around to watch the much talked about documentary ‘India’s Daughter‘, and have been mighty troubled since. A few days back, a video had gone viral on social media – the video had a stand up woman comedian taking dig at victim blaming and rape culture in our republic. Soon after, there were blogs, and comments, of angry men arguing that only some men rape and yet all men get needlessly vilified. Their argument was ‘all men are not rapists‘. What they missed was that all men may not be rapists, but the blatant misogyny at home and at workplaces (which may not always result in rape) nonetheless forces most women to live their lives as lesser citizens, having to choose between safety or freedom! The problem is not just rape, but the culture that makes rapes possible; a culture that forces women to live in fear of being raped, a culture that often enough legitimises the use of rape as a tool of showing women ‘their places‘ be it at home or on the road at night, a culture that refuses to grant women rights on their own bodies so much so that rape by husbands is not even considered rape, a culture that forces women’s bodies to become a repository of family, community, and even the nation’s honour so much so that while all of them try to keep women indoors to ‘protect their honour’, the ‘enemy’ outside remains determined to ‘rob’ it by dishonouring the body that carries all the honour. Leslee Udwin’s movie, unfortunately, fails to challenge any of these.

India's Daughter

Seeking to create a connect with the victim and disconnect with the perpetrator cannot be an effective tool for encouraging introspection of mindsets.

The documentary rests on the use of a tool that movies often rely on while trying to create an emotive impact. Most movies often make us identify with the protagonist, and create an emotional-intellectual distance between the audience and the villain. We identify and we ‘otherize’. We associate with the aspirations and qualities of the protagonist and dissociate with the actions and ideas of the villain – the terrain is black and white.

While talking to a friend (Ashis Roy) quite a few years back, when the Nithari case had just come to light, I remember that he was working on a write up on a psychoanalytic understanding of the case and in the course of discussing his analysis, we had begun questioning as to why did Surender Kohli fascinate us more than Pander. Was it because it was easier to ‘other’ him as not belonging to ‘us’ – brutal, beastly, monstrous? No, it isn’t about humanizing the perpetrator to evoke sympathy for them, but about humanizing the perpetrator so that it becomes easy for us to realize that in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions, we are sometimes not all that different from them. If we indeed want the mindsets to change, the challenge is to make people realize that these mindsets do not rest in the heads of some uncivilized beasts who, in the understanding of Sheila Dikshit, have grown up witnessing violence, and in the understanding of some others, have been denied an education. The challenge, as Javed Akhtar articulated in his speech in Rajya Sabha yesterday, is to force us to recognize that on most occasions we are not different in terms of our thinking, no matter how many educational degrees we acquire, or how sanitized our upbringing is (in terms of perhaps not having witnessed brute violence at homes).

So, how does Udwin respond to this challenge? On the basis of the trailers, one might be led into thinking that by getting Mukesh to talk about what was in his head, the documentary would perhaps make a whole lot of us uncomfortable when we find that we too have similar thoughts. But for that to happen, it was important to enable the audience to see the similarities between the convict’s mindset, and of course our own. The similarities could have been established by focusing less on the virtues of the victim or the extremely impoverished conditions of most of the convicts. However, what the movie (I am finding it difficult to use the word ‘documentary’ here) attempts is

1) To try and depict victim blaming as an act specific to the rapist or his legal defenders, and

2) To create an outrage over victim blaming not because victim blaming per say is problematic, but through building a narrative of the victim as one who did not deserve blaming because she had ‘proved’ herself to be the normative ‘good girl’.

Is victim blaming an act that only a rapist or his lawyers indulge in?

Let us begin with the first point. Following most incidents of rape, the statements of victim blaming that we get to hear are not from the rapists, but from their legal and other defenders – from our lawmakers, our police, and from the various ‘well wishers’ of mothers, sisters and daughters, determined to protect their dignity at any cost. Most of these statements are presented to us as being well meaning, and with an intention to prevent rape. In the movie, however, only a rape convict and his sensationalist lawyer are shown as mouthing these statements in their most crude form. The convict at one place says – “Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good”. When the convict says it in this form, and the convict alone is heard as saying it, does it allow us to relate to it to the famous “girls should not be adventurous” statement of Sheila Dikshit, who by the way in the same movie is instead shown as one trying to provide an insight into the understanding of a rapist! A woman who herself advised women to not be out during the night is shown as one having a profound understanding of how men who grow up witnessing violence and are denied education end up becoming rapists. Leslee Udwin interviews Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi at the time this incident happened, not with an intention to ask her uncomfortable questions about her own questionable statements and brutal actions on the protesters, but as an informed member of the civil society who can help us understand the issue better! Thus, only a rapist has a mind of a rapist, and the rest of us are of course ‘civilized’, ‘well raised’ and ‘well educated’ individuals whose only reaction can be of an outrage and never of introspection.

How can introspection be encouraged when a divide is created between how Mukesh thinks and how Sheila Dikshit thinks, and where the audience have the easy option to identify with the latter, whose uncomfortable articulations have been cleverly ‘unselected’! There is no attempt in the movie to also show excerpts from the infamous statements of Abhijit Mukherjees, Mohan Bhagwats, Asarams, Adityanaths, Mamta Banerjees and Tapas Pals and create links between the mind of rapists and the ‘rape speech‘ that non rapists also often indulge in. Instead, the impoverished backgrounds of the convicts are brought into focus every now and then to create a comfortable distance between them and the audience of the film. Leslee Udwin’s admiration for the civilized and disdain for the non-civilized is evidenced not only in the movie but also in her subsequent blog on the NDTV website where she appeals to the civilized in us to come out in her support. Unfortunately, in doing so, she only tries to undo a core component of the women’s movement which is that rape and rape culture are deep seated parts of our civilized worlds and that most women encounter abuse and assaults not by the uncivilized demons outside, but the civilized men in their homes or work places. She conveniently forgets that the culture of ‘silence’ around incidents of rape is more a construction of the ‘civilized world’.

How exactly do we expect an insight into the mind of a rapist to help us?

As a student of Psychology, I have had a considerable exposure to researches examining the minds of rapists, serial killers, and sociopaths. The researches aiming to understand the minds of rapists tried to provide an understanding of what provokes a rapist, what deters a rapist, and go on to suggest what the potential victims could thereby do to prevent themselves from becoming the victims. The ‘potential rapists’ were never a concern. Figuring out the minds of rapists was important, not to examine what goes into making of a rapist and thereby preventing people from becoming rapists; rather, such researches were, and still are, mailed en mass to females to suggest them on how not to become a victim. The way the movie has been made does appear to follow a similar pattern. It does not in any way invite men to engage with the mind of Mukesh, instead I can almost imagine men in middle class, upper middle class, and rich homes say to the women related to them – “See we don’t have problem with short skirts or your going out at night, but you see all men don’t think like us… Now you know how a rapist thinks… it is up to you to decide whether you want to be safe or risk rape”! In one clever stroke it does not only provide the society with more justifications for imposing restriction on women’s freedoms, but also allows most of us to distance ourselves from the mindsets the movie claims to expose. There is a difference between enabling someone to reach a realization that ‘I too sometimes think like that’ and between allowing people to justify their similar thoughts in terms of “when I restrict my wife or sister or daughter from going out at night, it is not because I think women who go out at night deserved to be raped, but because I intend to protect them from men who think like that”.

Is victim blaming more problematic in case of some victims than in the case of others?

Coming to the second point, even as the movie tries to portray itself as one against victim blaming, it still feels the need to eulogize the victim. In order to have the audience cry out in outrage over the victim blaming that the convict and his lawyers indulge in, there is a juxtaposed narrative of the victim as a nice girl, who was studious, kind to the underprivileged, very particular in her selection of movies (preferring Life of Pi as opposed to action movies) and as one who had obtained the permission of her parents before going out with a male friend. There is no denying of these as facts, but why the need to constantly reiterate them? Do we need to know that a victim is a woman of virtues before we can feel justifiably outraged by acts of victim blaming? What if there was a victim who was not so studious, who preferred action movies, who perhaps was not as sensitive to the plight of the less privileged, or who had perhaps sneaked out of her house without informing her parents to watch a movie with a boyfriend? Would it then have become difficult for Leslee Udwin to make us feel angered at the statements of Mukesh and his lawyers? Is the purpose of the movie to make us feel angry with just Mukesh and his accomplices for having committed this particular act of brutality against a victim whom we can find no faults with, or to make us feel angry with misogyny that breeds rape culture in general?

Two of the core issues raised during the December 16 movement were

1) Rape culture was an outcome not merely of the acts of rapists but of all those who provide similar justifications for rape, and

2) Recognizing that all women had an unconditional right to not be raped. The movie, by failing to focus on rape speech that we encounter daily in our socio-political context, and by its determined efforts to extol the virtues of the victim, goes against the protest slogans that were raised during the movement.

Does the movie at all capture the essence of the movement it claims to have been inspired by?

Leslee Udwin, in her blog on NDTV website had written – “I came here out of love for India, and because India had led the world by example in the unprecedented protests of its courageous men and women who came out on the streets to fight for my rights as a woman”. I will not delve much into the loving India part, though to me it sounds irritatingly patronizing, but jump straight to the mention of the 16 December movement. Yes it is a movement that all of us who were, and continue to be a part of, are immensely proud of. Proud, because from exclusive demands for justice in one particular case, we saw the movement evolve and raise demand for ‘unconditional freedom for women’. We saw a shift in an understanding among a whole lot of us who were new to the women’s movement, when we learned to recognize rapes not as crimes of lust but of power, we talked not only of one victim but forced people to get used to hearing the names of Soni-Sori, Asiya, Nilofer, Manorama Devi, Meena Khalko, Tapasi Malik, women of Kunan Poshpora and Khairlanji and many others, every time ‘rape’ was mentioned we argued that justice be demanded for all, we fought to get the definition of rape broadened, in our slogans we challenged patriarchy, we demanded that we wanted azaadi not merely from rapists who are strangers, but from the dictates of the khaps and also our fathers, and brothers, and husbands, who seek to control our bodies and agency. Where is any of this in the movie barring a few glimpses of some slogans being raised and brief bytes from activists who were part of the movement? Where is the engagement with rape as a structural problem? And how does Ms. Udwin show her respect for the movement – by making the woman who let the water cannons loose on the protesters who were demanding accountability from her as one who can help us understand why rapes happen? By showing the policemen who routinely fail to file F.I.R.s in the cases of rapes, bully the victims into taking back complaints, and who lathicharged the protesters, as being most efficient in catching the culprits in record time! Forget about the larger context, where are the difficult questions pertaining to this particular case – why was there no patrolling by the police at night? Why was the bus allowed unchecked at the road, and why did it not come to the notice of the police stationed at various check posts? Why wasn’t any politician who indulged in defending rape culture brought to book? Why did Sheila Dikshit refuse to speak to the protestors? Why was the then Police Commissioner routinely allowed to get away with arguments that put onus of the safety on women? How did Ram Singh die in custody? How were such buses with suspicious track records allowed to be on roads in the first place? Where are any of these questions?

The sensitivity of the context in which the telecast is being sought.

Leslee Udwin writes – “This was an opportunity for India to continue to show the world how much has changed since this heinous crime; sadly, the FIR and the banning of the film will see India isolated in the eyes of the world.” Yes, the Justice Verma Committee Recommendations were an important outcome of the movement, but where does the movie really engage with the recommendations? There have been a few, but significant, changes in some of the laws since the movement, but at what point does the movie elaborate on those changes and tries to “educate” the masses about them? It shows none of the positives and also fails to show how patriarchy continues to assert itself through various ways. Where are the voices of women and their opinions on how their life has or has not changed? Where is the examination of structural changes in the institutions? The only trajectory that the movie does capture for the world to see is of an unrepentant culprit, and that is nothing new – here, or even in her part of the world. How exactly will violators repent if the core assumptions of patriarchy remain unchallenged? A number of activists have rightly pointed out the problem with the title of the film, which again reveals a deep disconnect with the movement. I wish to go a step further, my problem with the title is not only that it tries to force on us the exclusive identity as ‘daughters’ that we have been strongly trying to resist, but a more sinister attempt to disown the ‘sons’ who rape as demonic ‘others’ unrelated to us! The last part of the movie, where it almost appears to be upholding the sentiment that the juvenile offender got away with very little sentencing, and repeatedly focuses on slogans demanding hanging of the rapists, only confirms this attempt. Hang them because they are not us! While Mukesh’s own statement that death penalty will be more harmful for the future victims is pertinent, juxtaposing it with cries of ‘hang the rapist’ reduces the significance of this argument by positing it as a convict’s reactionary threat. A more nuanced engagement with this particular statement, by involving women’s rights activists, would have been more helpful.

Activists like Kavita Krishnan and Vrinda Grover have already directed our attention at the legal aspects and repercussions of screening the movie now when the appeal of the convict is about to come for hearing in the Supreme Court. Though ban is not what any of us seek, my last question to Ms. Udwin is that just as she implores us to “see the film and then come to a conclusion”, why such resistance to our pleas – that wait for the judicial process to be completed. We have no fear of the damage that the movie might cause to India’s image, but your ill-guided enthusiasm over your film should not be more important than a fair judicial process! Yes we understand that you spent two years away from home to make this film, but a judicial process must be allowed to continue and be completed as freely and fairly as possible!

Shivani Nag is Asst. Prof. Psychology, Ravenshaw University. She was active in the 16th December movement, and has been an activist with AISA during her student days.