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Do Films Like ‘India’s Daughter’ And ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Portray India Unfairly?

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By Sehr Taneja:

“When will you send her to India to visit me?” I asked my best friend’s mother in the United States.

My friend’s mother’s response was startling: “I can’t send her there. I’ve heard girls disappear in India and are never to be seen again. Is that true?”

downloadI was dumbfounded. I spent the following thirty crucial minutes explaining that while women’s safety is a matter of concern for us, this analysis wasn’t necessarily true. This was just one of the many times I was thrown into a situation when I had to justify and defend the image of my motherland before a group of foreigners who had been exposed to a merely superficial image of India put forward by movies like Slumdog Millionaire and documentaries like India’s Daughter. These otherwise remarkable creations cut India’s vast culture and multiple realities down to a small segment of disturbing issues that reinforce outsiders’ stereotypes and reduce India to a shattered land of appalling ideologies and disturbing realities. While we cannot deny that these are not the only representations of India in international media, it is also important to acknowledge that such ghastly cases create lasting impressions that often manifest as a general understanding. This was especially true in the case of India’s Daughter which described the position of women in India, perceived as a broad representation of the attitude toward women and the perception of sexual assault in the nation.

As I squirmed with disgust and disbelief while watching Leslee Udwin’s award-winning India’s Daughter, I recalled the numerous times I had crossed the same road in Delhi. A stark realization was that as a college student in a foreign land, I was alone in my pain and no one around me could understand the effect such a documentary could have on me. While I struggled to comprehend the gush of sentiments and tame my wrath at hearing the dreadful comments of the rapists and their lawyers, I felt myself become smaller inside.

However, soon after I had gotten a grip on my emotions, an internal debate broke out within me. As a feminist, I was abhorred by the ban on the documentary, but as a member of Indian society left to defend its image in outside lands, I understood what the government’s rationale was. I believe that ‘India’s Daughter’ is the harsh reality that we are often forced to confront, but whether it portrayed the right image of India or a simply reductionist offering to the outside world is debatable. I was struck by the realisation that the lawyer’s comments such as, “in our society, we don’t let our girls out after 8 p.m.” or Jyoti’s parents’ statements that explained how others were shocked that they were celebrating the birth of a girl child, were perceived abroad as representations of Indian society at large. Regardless of how many times Leslee said in interviews that she was trying to shed light on the issues in the world and not just in India, the reality was that this documentary was centered around a particular case in our motherland and it tainted the image of India outside its borders, conveniently excluding all that is there to celebrate about our country. In such a situation, the opinions of these few people were accepted as the views of Indians at large, making it difficult for others to differentiate between people who held these repelling thoughts from progressive and respectful Indians.

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Source: Facebook

While Leslee explained that she was thrilled to see the mass protests that broke out following the rape, these too were presented in a dim light in her documentary, with a slanted focus on the tear gas and lathi charge that the government used to shut down the protests. Once again, I had to explain that this isn’t always the case in India and that we really do practice freedom of speech.

The reality was that I was perturbed by the documentary that felt so close to home. But even with these overwhelming emotions, I wasn’t around people who could acknowledge these issues and pledge to fight them with me, rather I was with foreigners who began to see this as an image of India; those who understood India’s poverty through ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and its women through ‘India’s Daughter’. Leslee’s documentary provided a tainted view of India to the world, emphasizing one gruesome rape case that we are all in the battle against, but in the process, it veered the worlds’ perception in a way clearly against our motherland, reducing reality to one case and the opinions of billions to those of a specifically disturbing rapist and his two chauvinistic lawyers. This simply ignored the masses of people who are, perhaps, even more forward-thinking that those in the West.

We are forced to accept that a sudden force cannot change age-old traditions in India in; rather, these are deep-rooted problems that need to be tackled within society with patience and reason. While India shifts from its patriarchal society to equality, the world needs to stand with us and not against us. But, if outsiders like Leslee choose to use one heinous case to turn the world into our enemy, then the battle becomes more difficult. We will then be left to confront the shallow perception formed on the basis of a documentary. I face it now when I am abroad and when strangers walk up to me questions with questions about India drawn from documentaries such as this one. I don’t support the ban, but I also don’t completely agree with the way the documentary was made. I believe that if Leslee truly wanted to support India’s fight and make this global comment on gender equality, she should have considered it her duty to provide both sides of the story: the forward-thinkers in addition to the appalling rapists. Here, I again emphasize that while India’s Daughter is not the only picture of Indian women in international media, it is a rather memorable one that has left a grotesque mark on the image of India in the outside world.

As India’s daughter in a foreign land, I was able to fathom this reaction, hoping that my fellow citizens would support me in the effort to show the world the charms of India that extend beyond the realms of what Leslee depicted in the span of an hour.

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  1. monistaf

    We cannot judge a country, ideology or religion by the action of a few extremists, but you can, and often should, judge them by how they react to such incidents. In this particular case, there was an outpouring of public sympathy to the extreme injustice suffered by the victim and justifiably so. It provoked massive protests all across the country. More men, than women, protested, it was men who investigated and arrested the perpetrators of the crime, it was a male judge who sentenced two of them to death, it will be a male hangman who will eventually prepare the noose and it was a majority male parliament that passed new legislation to increase the severity of the punishment for such cases in the future. The fact that Ms Udwin decided to represent the views of the entire male population of the country by interviewing a select set of men who furthered her own preconceived narrative is the classic journalism trick of telling a lie by not telling the whole story. We also cannot let the media in India off the hook because we choose to tell stories that are “politically correct” that exaggerate the already widening public gender empathy gap. Foreign journalists like Ms Udwin exploit these situations to further their own journalistic prospects. It is not necessarily unique to India, all over the world, in every country on earth, more men than women are victims of violent crimes. Can we honestly say that we see proportionate coverage in the media? We have somehow, as a society, become numb and insensitive to injustices and violence heaped on men, even to the extent that twitter hash tags like #killallmen #killallwhitemen #banfathersday have become socially acceptable.

  2. Guru

    Where is a documentary on the man in Nagaland who was blackmailed by a prostitute for 2 lakhs, then accused falsely of rape, locked up, then forced out of jail by a mob, dragged over 7 kms, stoned, beaten with fists and sticks, and hung in public. The media didn't even bother to cover the incident.

  3. Leslee Udwin

    Selfish and self obsessed articles like this one confound me. Especially when they written by someone purporting to be a 'feminist' and a 'human rights activist'. Ask yourself, Sehr Taneja : “Is what the Indians say in this documentary TRUE or not?”. If true then accept it. Don't join the ranks of government who are guilty of trying to mask and hide this truth, motivated by your own selfish concerns about your 'image' – think of the issue and the plight of women and girls in your country, and in the world at large.
    You speak of the “superficial image of India put forward by movies like Slumdog Millionaire and documentaries like India’s Daughter”. There is nothing superficial about the truths that these films reflect. The use of the word simply reflects on the shallowness of your commitment to the plight of women and girls. This is irresponsible denial. If the “position of women in India is perceived (in the film) as a broad representation of the attitude towards women” in India, then that is because the Indians in the film who make these comments believe and show this to be the case. I would remind you that there is no narrator in this film – my voice is not there!. The picture emerges from the testimonies and convictions of Indians themselves. You may not like this, but it's TRUE. It's the truth that emerges from the film and the voices of a broad section of Indians in the film.
    You say: “As a feminist, I was abhorred by the ban on the documentary, but as a member of Indian society left to defend its image in outside lands, I understood what the government’s rationale was.” If you can’t reconcile being a feminist with your nationalistic fervour, then drop trying to be a feminist – the 2 positions are mutually exclusive. You can’t help women only when it is convenient and serves nationalism also. It never will.
    You say: “I was struck by the realisation that the lawyer’s comments such as, “in our society, we don’t let our girls out after 8 p.m.” or Jyoti’s parents’ statements that explained how others were shocked that they were celebrating the birth of a girl child, were perceived abroad as representations of Indian society at large.” YES these ARE representations of Indian society at large. They are cultural mores that limit and endanger women’s and girls’ autonomy and safety in India. That is the truth. Other cultures have such restrictive and dangerous cultural mores also. They are different in characteristic and degree, but they are still as dangerous and ubiquitous. Strangely, I don’t hear the same degree of resistance from audiences around the world when we discuss their own countries’ crimes and misdemeanours in this regard. Is it that you as an Indian just have a bigger chip on your shoulder? You make it appear so, and in doing so, you yourself worsen your country’s image which you appear to be so concerned about.
    You say the documentary: “tainted the image of India outside its borders, conveniently excluding all that is there to celebrate about our country.” See the documentary again please and note how many positive things are also said about India in it. It is you who are conveniently (or pathologically) excluding all there is to celebrate about India in the film. Jyoti Singh herself, her enlightened parents who withstood the cultural pressures to deny a girl education etc etc. the positive statements made by Amod Kanth, and others. You say: “While Leslee explained that she was thrilled to see the mass protests that broke out following the rape, these too were presented in a dim light in her documentary, with a slanted focus on the tear gas and lathi charge that the government used to shut down the protests.” Are you so insensible that you fail to be moved and thrilled by the protests themselves as depicted in the film? Everyone else manages to do this. The courage and passion of the protests is the heart and soul of the documentary and is extremely visceral and celebratory in it. Why else the recurrence in the film of those fantastic fortifying chants of the protests and all they demand. Yes, the government crackdown is depicted – why wouldn’t it be? It happened. It is the truth.
    And when you say “we really do practice freedom of speech” in India, I’m afraid you lose all credibility and respect. The ban gives the lie to your attempt to whitewash your image, as do several other bans your government has imposed and the dangerous oppression (even murder) of dissident voices.
    You say: “I believe that if Leslee truly wanted to support India’s fight and make this global comment on gender equality, she should have considered it her duty to provide both sides of the story: the forward-thinkers in addition to the appalling rapists”. I ask you, if you have any reason in you at all, to look at the documentary and COUNT the number of forward-thinking Indians who appear in it – you will find they outnumber the backward-looking people. It is YOU who are guilty of focussing only on the negative. And YOU who are guilty of perpetuating the shame brought on your country by the denial and selfish image-obsession that is the reason or this misguided and undemocratic ban on the film.
    I would urge you also to count the number of times the words “I” and “me” appear in your article. Don’t, please, pretend you are a feminist when you are just an apologist for your own discomfort at the truth the documentary presents about the violation of the human rights of women and girls in India, and the world, with such searing clarity.

    1. Sehr Taneja

      Dear Leslee,

      With all due respect, I would like to clarify that are that you have said in defense of the documentary does not undermine my stand that the documentary showcased a biased representation that manifested in an anti-Indian manner abroad. Please note that while I welcome your criticism of my article, I refuse to pay heed to those directed at me, since they are not within the scope of this discussion.
      To begin with, this is an opinion article and is bound to be written in the first since I write from my experience and represent my opinion.
      Secondly, your representation of women in India is not well-rounded and complete. You forget to bring into discussion the number of progressive people who fight to shut down the rapist and lawyers that you spend most time representing. Their views are merely those of a few insensitive and ridiculous people which have been perceived as the views of India due to India's Daughter.
      As for the forward-thinkers you do represent, they appear for seconds and do not receive due attention. Had you interviewed more protagonists in the protest and those who have ardently fought for the empowerment of women instead of constantly returning to Dr. Misra from Oxford for analysis, perhaps your documentary would have been a more realistic and rounded representation.
      Once again, I emphasize that your depictions show an unfair slant toward the negative, which is clearly what shines in the documentary. The positive thoughts are lost in the few seconds that they are given in an hour long documentary.
      I myself am India's daughter and I don't refuse to acknowledge that there are problems surrounding safety of women in our national capital (as stated in the beginning of my article). However, as a rational citizen and a driven feminist, I take the time to analyze these problems in context of the culture and traditions of India to find an effective way to combat them. As I mentioned, thoughts cannot be tackled within moments and I don't believe your documentary did much good for the women of India in terms of bringing about a serious change.

    2. Indian girl

      Dear Leslee,

      What your documentary did….it exposed the Indian mindset towards its women in front of the world. Every Indian knows what that mindset is…its at its regressive worst…oppressive..deeply rooted in patriarchy. A typical Indian is very proud of his/her regressive mindset and no amount of logic can convince them otherwise…the rot runs so deep that its highly doubtful that it can be ever cured. A country is a persons home on a broader context…and who wants to expose personal filth for the world to see? No one. Thats exactly the point of this author. She is far more bothered about her own and her country's image and will go to any extent to defend this filthy image than to spare few seconds to really understand the motive behind your documentary. You see Leslee…in this country we are trained to brush everything and anything rotten under the rug and lay a sheet of nationalism over it. We are hypocrites at its best. Denial is a national passtime. Denial of issues is how we deal with a pressing matter. We do not have the spine or guts to own up our filth. If a disease has to be cured….that disease has to be first termed as a 'disease'…else how can anyone go about finding a cure? If you tell me I am suffering from a vile disease and instead of trying to figure out if I am indeed suffering and if so then trying to find a cure….all I do is counter blame you…about how you are making me look bad….what chance do I have of ever recovering?

      For the record, I am an Indian woman…and however strange it sounds I chose not to hide behind the veil of stupid nationalism and fake image. Only cowards hide and deny. I love my land and my love tries to see the real issues and real cures. People who truly love their motherland or anything for that matter and who have real spines accepts when there is a real issue and strive to improve. For those people..rest of the world stand up and clap. As for this author….its better for her to hide her face in sand and scream “all is well” and “how dare you expose my filth..its my filth after all”.

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