India’s Daughter

Protesters stand up for women's rights in India - even when they can't stand.

Protesters stand up for women’s rights in India – even when they can’t stand.

(2015) Documentary (Paladin) Asha Singh, Badri Singh, A.P. Singh, Dr. Maria Misra, Laila Seth, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Kalyani Singh, Satendra, M.L. Sharma, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Mango Lal, Dr. Sandeep Govil, Amod Kanth, Raj Kumar, Kavita Krishnan, Pramod Kishwa, Dr. Rashmi Ahuja, Pratibha Sharma, Gupal Subramanium, Puneeta Devi, Sheila Dixit. Directed by Leslee Udwin

It is estimated that a woman is raped in India every 20 minutes. It is a huge problem in the sub-continent which is an emerging global economic power. Part of the issue revolves around cultural attitudes towards women which can only be described as barbaric, backwards and unenlightened.

Jyoti Singh was a 23 year old medical student with a bright future ahead of her. When she was born, her mother Asha and father Badri “celebrated as if they’d had a boy,” which is unusual even in Delhi where the Singhs live. Although relatively poor (Badri is a worker at Delhi’s airport), they had land that they intended to give Jyoti as a dowry when she got married.

Jyoti had other ideas. Her dream was to bring modern medical care to impoverished villages such as the one where the Singhs held ancestral land; she convinced her parents to sell the land so she could get the education she needed. When they agreed, the rest of the family was dumbfounded. Jyoti’s tutor Satendra described the family as “traditional with a progressive mindset.”

On December 16, 2012 Jyoti had completed her last exam and would start her internship the following day. Her entry into medicine would mean a lucrative salary that would enable to bring her family out of poverty. A friend invited her to see the movie Life of Pi and she went for an evening out.

At about 9:30pm, she and her friend boarded a private bus that offered to take her home. As recounted by Mukesh Singh (no relation), the driver of the bus, several of his friends who were along for the ride – his brother Ram Singh, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma and a juvenile whose name has been unrevealed due to Indian law, approached the couple and asked them why they were out so late when Jyoti’s friend was clearly not her husband, her father or her brother. When the friend told them to mind their own business, he was viciously attacked and beaten. The other men then dragged Jyoti into the back of the bus and proceeded to rape her over and over while the bus circled around the streets and highways of Delhi, the girl screaming for help throughout.

The rape was a brutal one; she was beaten, bitten (dental impressions were among the forensics used to find and convict the men) and raped so savagely not only by the men but using a crowbar as an insertion that the juvenile, who appears to have been particularly bloodthirsty, reached inside her and pulled out her intestines. The bus finally stopped across from a hotel and the two victims were thrown off and left for dead.

A passing police patrolmen discovered them – they were astonishingly still alive – and summoned an ambulance. While her friend would recover from his beating, Jyoti would linger on for several days before succumbing to her injuries. The doctors who treated her described it as a minor miracle that she had not been dead on the scene.

The incident galvanized Indian women. Protests erupted in the streets of Delhi and elsewhere and despite some police overreaction (tear gas grenades and water cannons were used against the mostly female crowds) the government of India convened a special legal committee to look into the laws governing sexual assault in India headed up by the respected judge Laila Seth and some real changes were made.

Director Udwin interviews Mukesh who clearly feels no remorse for what happened – in fact, in his view the bitch had it coming because she was out late and not properly escorted. If she hadn’t fought back, he opined, it wouldn’t have been so bad, as if women are supposed to simply accept that they are being raped and move on. Mukesh, like his friends residents of a Delhi slum, can quite conceivably blame his archaic attitudes to ignorance and poverty.

What is jaw-dropping however is that his lawyers A.P. Singh (again, no relation to the victim) and M.L. Sharma – who are presumably well-educated  – reflect the same attitudes. How much of it is legal grandstanding in order to support their clients is debatable but it is clear that the attitudes towards India are outdated at best and misogynistic for certain. These attitudes are colliding with the desires of Indian women, who see how women in the West are enjoying careers and independence, to have the same for themselves. Udwin exposes this conflict dispassionately and looks at the incident as a catalyst. However, one can’t help but feel affected by the obvious grief of the girl’s parents. Jyoti, whom the Indian media dubbed “India’s Daughter” (hence the title of the documentary) became a symbol but we get a sense of who the girl was, although she only appears in the movie as pictures of a toddler for the most part.

There are a few flaws here. The format is very much like an American television newsmagazine program which means a whole lot of talking heads. The musical score occasionally, in order to sound ominous I suppose, is a bit overbearing and sounds like it was purchased in the same way as stock footage. While there is plenty of footage of the rioting and protests that followed Jyoti, there is little footage of the woman herself which may well be at the request of her family, who were at the center of a media storm in India back when this all happened; I can imagine they wouldn’t want a repeat of that.

At the end of the short but powerful documentary (which has aired on British television already), Udwin scrolls statistics of sexual assault, female genital mutilation and other sexual violence against women from various countries around the globe and those statistics are sobering. India isn’t the only place where women are raped after all, but perhaps their attitudes towards women may be more openly misogynistic than in other more supposedly developed countries where that misogyny is hidden below the surface but no less uncivilized. This could be an early contender for the Documentary feature Oscar. However, you won’t be able to see this in the country where perhaps it would do the most good – India has banned the film because of the views espoused by the rapists and their defenders which shows that India has a very long way to go in making things better. Sweeping a problem under the rug and ignoring it is generally the best way for that problem to grow worse.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally raw. An eye-opening look at attitudes towards rape and women in general in India. Complete look at the issue. Respectful to the victim.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking heads. Occasionally overbearing score.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent and sexual content, including graphic descriptions of rape and mutilation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Garfield has worn facial hair in a film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Back in Time

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