‘India’s Daughter’ Docu Is A Wake Up Call To Our Generation About Gender Violence & Rape

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Every now and then a documentary comes along that changes the world and gives us insight into a seemingly forgotten, hidden or unknown topic. There are many that have been an eye-opener to issues such as sexual assault in the military (‘The Invisible War’), rape on college campuses across the US (‘The Hunting Ground’), bullying (‘Bully’) and many more. There are documentaries that have the power to change laws, change mindsets and birth a generation of activists who have been awakened to a need after watching something unfold before their eyes on screen.

We believe ‘India’s Daughter’ is one of these documentaries. In fact, this film is undoubtedly one of the most impactful that we have seen in a long time, we are unapologetically calling it the wake up call our society needs in order to understand the depth, depravity and complacency that exists around rape and sexual violence.

We were invited to a media screening in Los Angeles before ‘India’s Daughter’ was released publicly, and Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn was present to introduce the film, as was author, speaker and international educational advisor Sir Ken Robinson, who conducted the Q&A with director Leslee Udwin after proceedings.

Sean Penn introduced the film as an MRI – something that is rather unpleasant to undergo, but is a vital life-saving tool. It was a statement that perfectly articulated why this film is incredibly powerful, and needs to be shown across the world, not just in India where it has sadly been banned by the Indian government (more on that later).

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The narrative follows the rape of a 23 year old medical student by the name of Jyoti Singh, who was brutally gang-raped by 6 men on bus in Delhi in December 2012. Following the incident which made headline news around the world, protests were staged across India consisting of men and women who demanded their government take action and at the same time urged their own patriarchal society to abandon shameful and backward mentalities which declare women are not equal to men.

Leslee Udwin is best known for her work in the UK as a producer on the British film ‘East is East’, the BBC docu-drama ‘Who Bombed Birmingham’ (based on the real life drama of the 6 Irish men who were wrongly accused of setting off a series of bombs in pubs that killed 21 and injured 182 people in 1974, who ended up spending 17 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit and who were finally acquitted in 1991 due to this film) as well as a TV film called ‘Sitting Targets’ which was based on Leslee’s personal experience living in a building under a violent criminal Landlord who was finally overthrown thanks to her own courage which eventually set a precedent in the High Court of England in terms of tenants rights. ‘Sitting Targets’ made Leslee realize the impact of filmmaking to change people’s minds, and so her career course was set from that point on.

When you hear her talk, as we had the privilege of after the ‘India’s Daughter’ screening, you start to feel a sense of urgency in your own spirit. She is a powerhouse presence in any room and doesn’t mince words. She’s not here to win awards or schmooze with the Hollywood media, she is here to disseminate a timely and vital message and wants platforms like ours to help take up the cause to as many readers as possible.

Her voice is unwavering and resounds with words that have a way of sticking to your subconscious. After watching the film there is no way of un-seeing the images, un-hearing the injustice, and you cannot walk out of the theater and just go back to normal life. So we had the chance to talk with Leslee one-on-one after the screening to get a better sense of who she is, what led her to make ‘India’s Daughter’, why everyone needs to see this film, and the real problem with gender inequality around the world.

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We first wanted to know about the girl behind the woman – what was it that led Leslee to become the champion for women’s rights that she is today?

“When I was 13 I attended a religious Jewish school my father had sent me to. Every morning the men said a prayer, and the words are ‘I thank God that he did not make me a woman’. Every religion is riddled with misogyny since time began, right? In patriarchal societies, men have the power, men have the entitlement and women are the subordinate creatures who have to keep their homes clean, make their food and look after their children. That prayer hurt me so much at the age of 13, I was devastated by this discovery. I ran in search of the rabbi who was the head of the school and I confronted him about this prayer. He was of course nonplussed, so I said ‘Rabbi you can take your Jewish Torah and shove it up your ass!’ Within 5 minutes he expelled me. I’m very proud of that expulsion,” she explained.

After getting a clear sense from a young age of the ways in which women are viewed by patriarchal societies, it was game on for Leslee. Fast forward to 2012 after the news of the rape of Jyoti Singh. Although it became a shocking headline, that in itself wasn’t the reason she decided to make a documentary about it, as she says these kinds of incidents happen quite regularly in India and around the world.

“We’ve seen stories like this before. Just recently a 4 year old girl was ripped apart from vagina to anus from a rape, had to undergo an operation to fit a colostomy bag and then she died. We hear about these cases all the time. What was unique about this particular story and that moved me to make the film were those extraordinary change-demanding, forward thinking, Indian men and women who are the only ones to date who have gone out and protested for over a month, in the name of equality and justice, and safety, and respect for women. No other country in the world has done this,” she recalls about her motivation.

You’d think that with all the outrage, protests and international headlines, ‘India’s Daughter’ would be a welcome piece of cinema in order to continue the momentum brought about after this incident. Sadly, and frustratingly, the film was officially banned by the government. The reasons cited hark back to a society that may be ruled by democracy on paper, but still follow the ways of the controlling patriarchy.

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“The first reason the government gave was that they feared it would lead to a disruption of law and order. In other words they feared more protests. But why fear protests? Protests are the healthiest way that people can express what they care about. And these peaceful protesters who kept coming out after Jyoti’s rape in December 2012 day after day, cracked down upon by the Indian government, that just made me so motivated to go and join them, and that’s what this film is, it is joining the protests. It’s amplifying their voices,” she said.

“But there was another reason which got me a bit closer to the truth of the ban when I watched them in the Lok Saba (Indian Parliament, the lower house representing the people). The members were hysterical, except for only 2 men who stood up and said ‘This film holds up a mirror to our society. We should look at it we should embrace it, and we should do something about it.’ All the other MPs in that house were hysterical with rage against me, saying I had indulged in a conspiracy to shame India, accusing me of decimating their tourist industry, and that’s closer to the truth than fearing more protests. They’re motivated quit misguidedly by the sense that this image of India has been tarnished,” Leslee added.

We asked her about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who after getting elected in May 2014, announced the elimination of gender violence would be one of his focuses going forward. He even launched a program called ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ aimed at changing the way Indian society views girls and women. So why would he choose to ban ‘India’s Daughter’, which seems as it if is a perfect fit for his agenda to protect the girl child?

“He didn’t personally ban it, but he certainly didn’t do anything about it. He has not chosen to lift the ban [on ‘India’s Daughter’], but look at the ban he HAS chosen to lift. A few months ago the Indian government banned over 800 pornography sites and what led to the ban was that an MP was sitting in the Lok Saba watching porn during parliamentary proceedings. I was overjoyed when I heard of this as I know what role pornography plays in these cases of rape and sexual violence. Within one week there was a massive outcry on social media by Indian men saying ‘You can’t take away our porn sites! We’re a democracy. You can’t trample on free speech and free expression’. Then the government lifts the ban. So what message are they giving us? What are their priorities and what are their values? For all of his fine words in Independence day last year when he said ‘when we consider rape in our country we should hang our heads in shame’ what is Modi doing? He’s lifting the ban on pornography sites yet he’s keep the ban in place on a film that can transform men who commit these outrages, and can transform women and give them a sense of their importance and their value. It’s shameful,” she said emphatically.

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While we too are baffled by the PM’s decision, we can rest in the knowledge that in the digital age we live in, there may well be a way for Indian citizens to watch this film. In the meantime, as we watch, there are some very crucial aspects to this film that need to be seen and heard. The most notable for us was the interview with one of the rapists, Mukesh, who was also driving the bus on the night of Jyoti’s rape. He appears calm and focused throughout his interview, but what he had to say about the rape itself is what it most shocking.

“I wanted to know what kind of men do this, why men rape, and how they can do this to another human being. If we don’t speak to them, how the hell are we ever going to change them and how would we know? What are we going to do, guess at why a man pulls out the intestines of a girl after 5 of his friends have raped her? Of course we have to talk to them! It was an imperative to interview those rapists. The focus is not on them, but it’s so shocking what they say because it holds up a mirror to society,” she says before adding that after interviewing Mukesh and speaking to a psychologist (who also appears in the film) about their actions, she realized that these men aren’t necessarily monsters, it’s what has been taught to them in the society they have grown up in that is the real problem.

“The other thing, is that they feel no remorse. None of them believe, that they’ve done anything wrong,” Leslee said. But it wasn’t just the rapists who think that way, it was also their highly educated defense lawyers who don’t hold back in sharing their opinions about women in India, and the rape case itself. One of the men even went as far as to detail the kind of violence he would enact on one of his own family members, given the opportunity.

“Look at the lawyer who said ‘if my daughter disgraced herself, I’d pour acid on her and burn her alive’. He said that to cameras! That was from archive footage a few months before filming, that I incorporated into the documentary. When asked about it, I thought he would back-peddle and deny it, but instead he said ‘I stand by my words, that’s absolutely what I believe’. They just don’t think it’s wrong. The girl was out at night and she had ‘disobeyed’ the patriarchy.”

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Although the rapists’ lawyers are adamant in their beliefs about patriarchy and a woman’s place, the actual law is very different. In fact India even has an equal rights clause in its constitution, something the US has yet to ratify. Leslee doesn’t hold back on her thoughts on the absurdity of the ERA not yet being written into our constitution.

“That is so shameful! Honest to God, are we so insignificant, are we so unworthy of respect by politicians that they don’t even bother to give us these words that give us the dignity we deserve? How dare they! We’ve given birth to them!”

Toward the end of the documentary we see news footage of the rapists eventually being sentenced to death by the Indian courts, and it was being touted as “the rarest of rare occurrences” in the judicial system, as if this kind of case has never been heard of before. Sadly, for far too long there has been a culture of silence and women not reporting attacks, but Jyoti’s case has opened the floodgates.

“Earlier this year there was a case in Rohtak where a mentally ill woman was lured into a field by 9 men, they shoved a stick inside her and broke it, and left her to die and be eaten by animals, which she was, and then she died. There are many more cases. Of course it’s not rare, and it’s not just India, it’s all over the world. That’s the lie that society tries to perpetuate because they try to distance themselves,” she said.

We asked Leslee her thoughts on why rape has now become an issue where the victim is first blamed or ignored.

“It’s the mindset of gender inequality. It’s men trying to hang onto their entitlement and their power. Name me anyone in the history of mankind who has willingly given up a powerful, privileged position. They don’t. They’re clinging onto it for dear life. And it’s a vicious circle,” she said, essentially damning the patriarchy and how it still influences mindsets and attitudes today.

“People are incapable of empathizing, unless it happens to their sister or wife or girlfriend. Somehow its ok that it happens to others. Or it’s not real. We’ve never been taught empathy. Empathy isn’t a natural instinct. The opposite is true, we are built to be selfish creatures who think we’re at the center of the universe. We have to teach people empathy. And how are we spending all this effort teaching kids mathematics and not teaching them respect for another human being? We are irresponsible and we have neglected the holistic education of the world’s children, and we may as well give them rape manuals and acid-throwing manuals and say ‘this is how you do it’.”

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Which brings us to her work outside the film and the ground-breaking education curriculum she has been working on with patrons such as the aforementioned Sir Ken Robinson and Meryl Streep that has been influenced not just by what she has learned from making ‘India’s Daughter’, but by her entire producing career.

“The idea came from two quotes. One from Aristotle that says ‘education of the head without education of the heart is no education at all’, and the other is a visionary quote from Jesuit beliefs which still holds true (as science today tells us is right), ‘give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man’. That was my basis of inspiration, coupled with the insights I got from this journey: it’s nothing to do with the rapists being uneducated because look at their lawyers who are educated yet think the same way, it’s everything to do with the content of the education. We’re teach kids to read, write and count, but we’re not teaching them to feel, to care, we’re not teaching them the value of another human being, we’re not freeing them from gender stereotypes, we’re not sensitizing them to another person’s point of view and pain, and that is a serious subject. It should be a compulsory curriculum from a young age, that’s a crucial thing because we do know we have a very narrow window in which to change and shape attitudes and behavior of a child. Until we do this, all we’re doing is reacting to the symptoms, and not dealing with the root cause. “

Leslee has created a Human Rights education curriculum with which she is traveling around the world trying to convince human rights offices in various countries to implement this into their education systems. It is called the Equality Studies Global Initiative. So far 8 countries have indicated they are on board (Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Malta, Sri Lanka and Lisutu), and we certainly interested to see how this continues to grow. They’re in the process of recruiting a committee of 20 global experts and visionaries on education, human rights, gender and psychology.

Leslee continues to travel around the world the film screens in countries such as Japan, Bangladesh, China, Korea, Hong Kong, and more, and says at every screening she attends she receives feedback from viewers who want to get involved after being so affected by what they’ve seen.

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“Every single screening activists are born, so it’s keeping the conversation burning, spreading the message, transforming individuals. The film can’t reach everyone, but whoever it reaches it has an absolutely marked and powerful effect on them,” she said.

As our time with Leslee comes to a close, we shift focus away from the film for a second and ask her what makes her powerful woman, as we ask all our interviewees. Here is her answer:

“I tell the truth. I’m absolutely fearless and I don’t give a stuff anymore! I’m 57 years old. I’ve been patronized by men all my life. I’m angry, I’ve had enough, and I’m not going to stop and they’re not going to silence me. And I will continue to tell the truth and that is where my power is. It’s fueled by anger, and it is fueled by a determination to get justice for women. I’ll do whatever it takes and I’ll tell everything that there is to tell. I’m not going to be diplomatic, I will simply fearlessly tell the truth.”

Although many of the descriptions in the film are brutal and shocking, we believe it is a message that needs to be shared. Like Sean Penn said, it is our societal MRI, and we need to be reminded of the evil that still prevails in this world. We highly encourage you all to watch ‘India’s Daughter’, and check your local theaters for screening times and dates. If Leslee hadn’t made this film, Jyoti’s story and every other girl subjected to sexual violence in India would’ve just faded into obscurity over time, as do many women and men around the world who are victims of violence. Let’s not be part of a generation that stands by while we have the power to act, speak, think and believe in change.

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