Monday, 12 October 2015

India's Daughter is proof: Not every film on rape fulfills feminist ideals

In late 2012, the deadly gang rape of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey on a moving Delhi bus set off a firestorm of widespread protests in India. Her brutal assault and subsequent death exposed a culture of victim-blaming and lack of state and law enforcement protections for violence against women. Director Leslee Udwin's documentary “India's Daughter” explores the case and its aftermath, and was quickly banned by the Indian government after its release this year. While the debates around this measure are important in the context of freedom of expression and legal concerns, it’s also worth exploring whether the film actually brought any of the change it aimed for.
In “India’s Daughter,” Jyoti’s parents share their memories of her with fondness and pride. In a culture where girls are undervalued, they celebrated her birth and spent what little they had to educate her. She was on her way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor, something virtually unheard of in the village her parents left to raise their family in Delhi. These accounts humanize Jyoti, rather than seeing her merely as a rape 'victim.’ But as her parents and her tutor recount her virtues, I can’t help but wonder if the narrative would have evoked less support if it would have been any other 'kind' of girl.
Jyoti had reportedly told her parents she wanted to go and watch a movie because she wouldn't get the chance once her internship began. But what if she had been more like rape survivor Suzette Jordan, who passed away this year – a woman who enjoyed going to night clubs without feeling the need to justify her right to pleasure?
Like Suzette, Jyoti had reported her rape, defying the culture of shame that 'good girls' are supposed to be a part of. One of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, said in his interview that they expected she would be too ashamed to tell anyone about the attack.
It may not have been Udwin’s intention, but “India’s Daughter” fails to look beyond how society and her family perceived Jyoti, painting a sadly one-dimensional picture of her.
The director said she regretted that Jyoti's friends did not agree to talk and share more about her on camera. Still, she could have brought in the voices of other rape survivors in India who have been publicly asserting their individuality beyond being someone’s daughter, sister, mother.
Udwin claims the title “India’s Daughter” was simply a term used by the Indian press, not a patriarchal statement. But just before the end credits roll, the film once again uses the term 'the rape of India's daughter.' If Udwin intended for that to be sarcastic in any way, I didn’t detect it.
Her attempts at humanizing Jyoti instead give way to victimization by the cinematography of an eerie night, blood on the roads and a funeral pyre. These images – reminiscent of news reports of sexual violence, illustrated with stricken, crying women hiding their faces – only add to the notion of women as weak creatures to be either exploited or pitied. In one scene, the tutor seems to commend that Jyoti chose to watch “Life of Pi” instead of an average action movie. But even that is followed by the visual of a snarling tiger from the film, a warning saying, perhaps, that Jyoti's choices were immaterial in the face of circumstances.
 Together with the background score, all this emphasizes the predator-prey relationship, which, once again places men and women in the doer and done-upon hierarchy. The dramatic reconstruction “India’s Daughter” provides of an already devastating incident takes away from the seriousness of the issue and encourages vicarious interest in the film.
The film is replete with misogynist statements from the rapists and their defence lawyers. Socio-political figures like Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit and NGO founder Amod Kanth discuss, respectively, how girls are undervalued and the circumstances in which juvenile delinquents often grow up. But in light of past instances (of which Udwin probably knew about and was critical of) when they resorted to victim blaming (Dixit) and opposed decriminalising homosexuality (Kanth), their credibility as people with an understanding of gender-based violence seems compromised. The intention of 'holding a mirror to society’ to show that the criminals’ thoughts are commonplace may backfire here. India’s progressive community is already well aware of the prevalence of such misogyny. But it’s those misogynists who consider themselves members of 'civilized' society that won’t see the coincidence of their own views and the rapist’s. And since “India’s Daughter” does not provide a strong and timely counterpoint, so many are likely to miss the condemnation inherent in the film.
 The rapist sounds dangerously 'logical' when saying he had the right to ask Jyoti why she was out with a boy, that they won't have assaulted her like they did if she had not resisted. The audience isn’t stupid, but it has its biases. And if anyone intends to challenge those, they’ll need a hard shaking.
India’s Daughter” takes its viewer to the time before the rape, when the rapist says he and his friends wanted to party, to enjoy. When he says that they may not have money like the rich folk, but they have 'courage,' I can see the frustration of being born in an underprivileged class. I can see how their sense of superiority is restored by committing violence against women. I can see the ‘logic’, however twisted, of shifting the inferiority they feel to a group they consider to be even lower in status: women. These men feel it’s only by curtailing women's rights to enjoyment that they can exercise their own. But this need to establish masculine power over women and the anger against women – who dare to express their desires and are ready to face the 'risks' presented by the existence of such men –  isn't restricted to men of a certain class, as shown in the film.
When the camera goes into the slums and meets the rapists' families, there is no clear line drawn to say that what might be one explanation of their crime is not the same as being justification, as not all people in the same situation would behave similarly. Zooming in on their poverty, too, makes it appear like just the poor commit such crimes.
One activist speaks for a short duration and there is no voice at all belonging to other young women in the city. Both the Oxford historian's analysis and the Indian activist's statements are recorded in English, which renders them even more ineffective as staunch opposition to the chauvinism expressed in Hindi. There is no introspection on how these views came to be in the lawyers' case; and in the case of the rapists, it stops at linking their crime to growing up in poverty and witnessing everyday violence.
To be sure, films have their inherent limitations - of time, resources and the need to stick to focus areas - but then “India’s Daughter” cannot become the premise for a global campaign that wants to end gender inequality. Its 'exclusive' feature may be the rapist's interview, but the film gives no new information, insight or inspiration. It’s just another reminder to keep the fight against sexual violence going on.
But by not looking deeper into how a traditionally patriarchal culture perpetuates misogyny, the film leaves viewers feeling like this is less of a global crisis and more about one family’s daughter or one country's problem.

First published in The Tempest, 9 Oct 2015.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Underbelly of Delhi University

Soon after I joined the Miranda House (Delhi University) hostel in 2003, I got too busy with extra-curricular activities within the college and the hostel to bother much with the curfew time. In Anukriti, our Hindi dramatics society, sometimes we were working on our full-length production till 2 in the morning. But as this happened every year, permission was granted by the hostel for this in a routine format and in any case we used to rehearse in the college auditorium itself. Gradually I started feeling that many other issues in the college also demanded attention and in my third year, 2005, I joined the students' union.

Office-bearers of the union and the administration had to work together on many fronts. It was in these close and direct interactions with authorities that I started mulling more regularly over claims made by the rule-makers that they always have the best interests of the students at heart. When a student living in a PG accommodation reported being harassed by her landlord, many students and teachers decided to take out a march that also addressed the larger issue of harassment of women in the university. I was surprised when our principal asked us to consider what such street action would do to the college's reputation. We went ahead anyway and protested till action was taken against the accused.

While marches demanding students' safety make for bad press, news of students' excellence in academics and extra-curricular activities are welcomed. So when MTV said they wanted to shoot a debate in the hostel premises with the participation of our students, it was allowed by the advisory body to the students' union. On the day of the debate, the staff advisor was reading again the permission letter I had submitted and she had signed. It was only then that she noticed the topic of the debate: Do the Mumbai film industry and the underworld share a connection? Around that time there had been some news reports suggesting links between actor Govinda and gangster Dawood Ibrahim. The staff advisor asked me to immediately ask the TV crew to leave because this was not a 'safe' topic. I refused to comply because, apart from other obvious reasons concerning the nature of her fear, I was not ready to face the embarrassment of going back on a commitment. I stated that it was something like this which would definitely create a dent in the institution's repute. I was told that if I was not willing to cancel the event I must write and sign a statement saying I would be responsible for the safety of all the participating students (in the event that Dawood Ibrahim tried to cause them any harm). With time running out and the crew and students waiting outside, I signed, later requesting all the students to safeguard themselves against the underworld if they did not want me to get into trouble.

Time and again, we came across these unfounded biases and unexamined opinions expressed by our 'elders'. They were supposed to be in our favour but, when they took the shape of rules and regulations on paper, had the power to adversely affect us. There was no room to have a conversation around it, to question and see if there was any logic or rationale behind it. It is not that we found all views of the older generation orthodox and hailed all positions of the young as radical. In fact we were supported by many teachers who also belonged to the same older generation. But when it came to those in power, who could make and execute rules, most were those who just toed the line.

When some of us in class worked to revive the almost defunct placement cell, we were supported by the concerned office staff member but unaided by the teacher-in-charge. She believed that students should go for higher studies, not lust after jobs and money-making. When organisations looking to recruit started pouring in, we couldn't help regretting all the opportunities that students in previous years must have missed at a time when they needed jobs.

During college festivals, it had become a trend that students would compete with each other in flaunting that their college had brought in the most famous/expensive band that year. I felt that art should be encouraged and good bands brought in that students would enjoy, but that it was a pity to spend so much money on inviting the 'brand names' when the college could use the money for so many amenities required more urgently by the students. This stand was applauded by the authorities because it did not advocate extravagance in spending college funds. On the other hand, when the union sold college sweatshirts to students at the cost price, it was criticised because it did not add to the treasury. And just a few days before this, the authorities had rejected many fund raising ideas (which did not require the students to pay) because they were not willing to shoulder the responsibility. How fair was it to expect the students to go on contributing to the college resources when there was little transparency about how the money paid in fees under heads like maintenance, etc., was being used?

It is inspiring today to see the Pinjra Tod campaign raise once again and with such a large support base the question of whether blind compliance and unquestioning obedience to authority figures is the best thing for us. It is all the more pertinent that they are doing it in the context of women's safety and freedom, which should be mutually inclusive but are ironically made to seem opposed to each other. In my earlier days in college, I had once wondered if we should express disagreement with hostel rules if we had known about them at the time of joining. I have since come to realise that some locks turn from the inside.

First published in She the People, 10 Oct 2015.

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