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?”
I 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.
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.