BY PAMELA PHILIPOSE
As the controversy over ‘India’s Daughter’ snowballed over the past few days, I found myself reluctant to join in the conversation, partly because it tugged at many contending sides of someone who self-defines herself as feminist-media person/media person-feminist.
Those who raised their voices on the debate were driven by their passions, politics, feminism – they were lawyers, political activists, mediapersons, social activists, politicians, academics and their stances were also reflective of their locations. But, looking back, the conversation about this film pointed to the many-layered and multi-voiced nature of a movement that goes by the rather clumsy appellation of “the Indian women’s movement”, a movement that has argued against the death penalty and the need to constantly remember that the Delhi gang rape is part of a continuum of violence, including that perpetrated by the armed forces, the upper castes and the heteronormative.
About the film itself, I found myself extremely put off initially by the publicity that greeted its arrival. The deliberate projection of the thoughts of one of the rapists reflected not feminist, but marketing, impulses. It appeared to be a sales pitch for a multi-billion dollar global gig. I for one don’t object to global articulations on the issue with international stars like Meryl Streep speaking up for the young woman gangraped on December 16, 2012. I for one did benefit from Maria Misra’s carefully marshalled thoughts on the case, even while I know that there are many academics within India who could have commented with insight too. This issue is not the “property” of the Indian women’s movement, or those speaking for it, but is of concern to everyone, woman or man, Indian or not, who is concerned about ending gendered violence, within India and outside it. But there really can be no denying that the bad faith inherent in the initial projection of the film did cast a pall on the manner the film came to be deconstructed in the days that followed.
‘India’s Daughter’, despite the rather anachronistically patriarchal flavour to the title that did seem odd in a documentary purporting to speak for women’s freedom and empowerment, can be viewed as another welcome attempt to grapple with the complexities of the Delhi gang rape. The film could capture the voices of the parents and document their better understanding of their daughter (not always evident in their earliest statements just after her death) and their more wholehearted embrace of her dreams for the future. Although, unfortunately, they still hold on to their demand for the death penalty for their daughter’s rapists, they themselves seem to have evolved immeasurably through this trauma in ways that could inspire other middle class Indian parents like them.
The film also provided us with valuable glimpses of the young woman herself which had not surfaced in the reams that had been written about her already. For example, the way she had objected to a child pickpocket who had robbed her being beaten up by the police and the manner she reached out to him is evidence of an unusually sensitive young woman.
‘India’s Daughter’ then did have its moments of resonance and they must be acknowledged at a time when Indian exceptionalism has become political capital and politicians want the film to be banned because it brings discredit to India. In fact, by bringing to the viewer the voices of the two surviving members of the three-person Justice Verma Committee — which came out with a quite exceptional Report on addressing gender violence in India — it also showcased the strengths of Indian democracy and the country’s potential capacities for introspection and self-correction.
The defence lawyers thoughts had already been given a public airing in September 2013 after the Delhi additional sessions court had awarded the death penalty to the accused in the case and should occasion no surprise. They in fact indicate how poorly trained are the government defence lawyers upon whose wisdom impoverished convicts have to routinely depend upon for a modicum of justice.
What are cringe-worthy are the statements from one of the gang rape convicts. The access the film maker got to Tihar jail, and the manner in which the four men were paraded before the cameras, is a comment on the differential treatment that is still accorded to the more powerful in the media hierarchy by the prison authorities. It constituted a violation of their rights as prisoners. Besides this, it allowed one among them to incriminate the others in the crimes entailed and could possibly influence the judicial process that is still underway.
This careless manner in which the film deals with these lives recalls a well-known passage from The Great Gatsby: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ I think therefore that if there is a fatal flaw in ‘India’s Daughter’, it is this carelessness. The flaw is compounded by the fact that the cry for the death penalty, which was so much a part of the protests of December 2012, could be given a new lease of life because of these statements.
So I would add my voice to those who had argued for a deferred release of the film until the judicial process had ended. Banning cannot be an option.