In Khalnayak, that 90’s potboiler spin off of Ramayan, Ballu Balwan threatens the police head and jailor that come what may he would get escape on the date he decides to. Sitting right inside the jail, he makes grand statements and threats to not just the jail officials but the public at large, not once fearing for his fate leave alone remorsing for what he did to get in there.
Watching Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter reminded me of this character from Khalnayak almost instantly. A banned commodity in the country (more on that a little later) the documentary has been creating reams of news and discussions; even forcing our reticent law makers to stand up and give impassionate speeches. As I watched the documentary online, like scores of friends on my timeline, goaded by #tags for and against it, I could not help but wonder what was all this fuss about?
To state the obvious, there is nothing in India’s Daughter that the melodramatic news reportage since December 2012 has not already shown us. What makes matters worse is that the tenor and tonality of Udwin’s work mirrors that of our news channels that are wont to milking even banal situations for their emotional appeal. With over 2 years of research and unprecedented access to the convicts in Tihar for interviews, the least one expected was to have a perspective in there somewhere. What we get instead is a shoddily made, badly edited hour long recounting of the horrors of the incident in almost graphic details.
That is not to say that we do not need to recount these details. In fact this incident and its nitty gritties are something we should be reading in text books, to remind us of how our apathy as a society to women did not change even after this numbing shock of an incident. Two years, death sentences and amended laws later, however, what we also need is a perspective. A perspective into the how what and why’s of this whole issue of rape, not just the Nirbhaya case.
We see Mukesh, one of the convicted accused sentenced to death, spout sermons on how the girl deserved it. Of how had she not resisted she would not have been killed. Of how killing a rapist for rape would now mean no victim would be left alive to tell a tale. Udwin offers through the documentary, Mukesh, a platform to make that last ditch effort to save his skin before the noose tightens round his neck (if at all ever).
Then there are his lawyers, with gems like “Our culture is greatest and best, there is no place for woman in here” and “no good lady is ever raped” giving Udwin a picture of India as they imagine it to be. Much like an uneducated uncultured idiot would tell a gullible white skin “yes India we charm snakes and bathe in cow dung because it’s pure” or how our Prime Minister stands up at national science forums and espouses how Ganesha was the first example of plastic surgery we Indians devised before the west. Is that all a documentary could have documented?
What about the alternate, real views?
Tokenism in this regard is the footage of protests and government clamp down on the students and youngsters who thronged the roads of Delhi impromptu the very next day on. At one point, the voice over even says that this was the first time in Independent India that youth mobilised together peacefully without any political party or leader at the fulcrum. Sadly, the insight ends there, for Udwin is busy shocking us with more details of how many times the lathis hit women on their stomachs, or how many droplets of water hit the innocent protesters. Priorities misplaced, opportunity wasted perhaps?
Udwin also misses no chance to manipulate and arm twist emotions of her viewers. Details of the rape are juxtaposed with Nirbhaya mother’s stoically silent face. Barring the unbelievably resilient and immensely dignified presence of her parents, one would have mistaken this to be RGV’s latest crime saga. We see and hear experts, women who were part of the protests, lawyers, lawmakers, speak about how they were horrified and shocked by the incident the days that followed. How about a little insight into how this incident changed or affected lives of these women since? How women across the country speak up against, recognise and fight rape as a reality out in the open? How there are men who are equally disgusted and pained by the sorry state of affairs? How not everyone is a Mukesh? How Mukesh is not just a single individual but a mentality that plagues a lot of men, and dare I say women too, in our society? How about a little perspective from Nirbhaya across the globe?
Lofty ideals and unrequired baggage perhaps, for all Udwin seems to have wanted was to shock and stun us all as she collated publicly available reportage on the issue into a one hour long film.
With the ill-advised and ill-timed ban, a documentary that otherwise would have died a silent death like many others do, is now being snowballed into a tour de force. The sad thing is, it does not deserve this attention. Udwin’s India’s Daughter is a film that is important, as a testimonial of what happened. It is also a wasted opportunity, a reminder of how nothing was new and how efforts were criminally more towards eliciting that cringe on our faces than actually an insight into what we are as a nation. What is happening to the documentary is a telling comment on what our priorities are as a people.