The flaws in 'India's Daughter'

IN Media Practice | 09/03/2015
The voice of the rapist dominates the film rather than that of the victim.
This, and the lack of transparency over informed consent, troubles ANUP KUMAR as much as the ban. Pix: Leslee Udwin
Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter holds up a mirror for all of us to introspect how seemingly benign gendered attitudes constitute a basis for a deep misogynistic culture in society. I think the central message of the documentary is that the pathology of misogyny cannot be fought merely with strong penal measures such as the death penalty unless we also acknowledge its roots in gendered values and norms in our families and society. Men such as Mukesh Singh and the lawyers featured in the documentary are raised in this society.
 
In a country of more than a billion people, there are only a few who act with beastly violence, but there are far too many who hold attitudes similar to those expressed by Mukesh Singh which is why the ban on India’s Daughter by the Indian government sends a wrong signal to the people in the country and the world. Moreover, any ban in this age of digital mass communication is stupid and self-defeating. The film must be watched and debated.
 
There has been a lot of commentary on the central message of the documentary and its wider impact on free expression; sons and daughters of India; the movement against rape, misogyny, and gender equality; and use of rape in the political economy of gendered oppression.
 
By arguing against the ban I am not suggesting that there was nothing wrong with the manner in which Udwin conducted her reporting and put together the narrative in the documentary. Rather, because of the ban we are not having a public debate on either the central message of deep misogyny in society or the problematic methodology, instead, we are talking about the propriety of the ban.
 
Here, I would like to talk about two issues that have not received adequate attention. First, I think the narrative in the film is troubling from the perspective of whose voice is privileged.  Second, means are as important as ends, a cliché, yes, but still an important value for journalism, which I take documentary films profess to be, unless they are docu-dramas.

In a review that compellingly argues against the ban, Sagarika Ghose writes, “But it is Nirbhaya and not Mukesh - who dominates the film.” I think that it is such a misreading of the film and the irony in the title. Mukesh Singh is the protagonist. He enters the frame in McNamaraesque style.  (In the iconic interview documentary, “Fog of War, on the Vietnam war by Errol Morris, the subject Robert McNamara speaks to the camera about the reasons behind the blanket bombing as if he is rationalizing to the audience.) This homage to Errol Morris I suspect, is not something  he would have been proud of.

 The victim, Nirbhaya/Jyothi Singh, is in the context, but always in the background. Even in the montage, which often cuts in sensational style, her parents’  voices are never privileged over that of Mukesh Singh. Despite the above problems in the framing of the message and the narrative in the documentary, the parents have shown courage and sensitivity that all of us must emulate. 
 
In the end this is a documentary about the face of evil, Mukesh Singh, and not about India’s daughter – the irony in the title is compounded by the interviews of the mother and a wife of a rapist holding her son on her lap. The latter is perhaps the most poignant point in the film, when this young wife, India’s daughter who is still alive, says that she will kill herself and her son. In a quite odd sort of way, the title of the film reminded me of Katherine Mayo’s classic Mother India, which raised important issues about sexual exploitation of adolescent mothers in colonial India, but framed it as a polemic.
 
By privileging victims’ voices over that of the perpetrators, it is still possible to express outrage and show a mirror to society. There are many movies and documentaries that do exactly that.
 
One of the best examples is a 2004 Marathi film, Saatchya Aat Gharaat, based on an actual sexual attack on a college student in Pune. The victims’ voices dominate a 2012 documentary on a rape epidemic in the US military, The Invisible War, and recently in a Sundance documentary, Hunting Grounds, about rapes on US college campuses which makes a powerful call for action by giving voice to the victims. Udwin has argued that she was inspired by the massive protests in India. I wonder why the voices of the protesters and victims of rape in India did not constitute the dominant frame.
 
Now coming to the second issue about the process.
 
Following a close reading of the information that was put out in the public domain about the process, it seems that everything was not above board. Udwin and her collaborators were not transparent about the subject matter of the documentary when they sought permissions from the jail authorities and government to interview the convicts. It is not clear from the consents released in the media that they were transparent about the objectives and concerned about any potential harm caused to informants who decided to participate on camera.
 
Even the permission letter issued by the home ministry makes it explicitly clear that “informed consent” must be obtained from each of the convicts for whom the permission was sought. The document suggests that consent was obtained, but not informed consent. Obtaining informed consent was not only a question of ethics and journalistic value, but in this case was also legally required according to the terms of the permission obtained by the filmmakers.
 
Informed consent was important as the convicts might end up harming their own appeal against the death penalty. It should have been imperative for the filmmaker to make it clear to the subject that what he says on camera might undermine his appeal. 
 
It is possible that either the lawyers of the convicts were “informed” about the potential harm or it was assumed that they were knowledgeable enough to have known about any potential harm; even though it is not the same as taking informed consent from the subject being interviewed. Moreover, we know that the lawyers were not sophisticated enough to understand any potential harm; just look at how their comments in the film have put their own membership of the Bar in jeopardy.
 
There is no freedom of the press or free speech right to interview convicts and under trials in jail. Such a right does not exist in any democracy including in the bastion of First Amendment here in the United States. And when such interviews are permitted, they are mostly done by professionals such as psychologists for research purposes only.
 
Here in Cleveland, which has lately earned infamy for sexual predators, journalists were not given access to interview Anthony Sowell, the man in Cleveland who raped, killed and then buried his 11 victims inside his own house. In interviews given to psychologists and put out by his defence team, Sowell claimed that he was mistreated by women. But none of the journalists gave prominence to his rationalizing of his crime. Similarly, Ariel Castro -- the man who held three women as sex slaves for more than a decade locked in his house -- we did not get to hear his rationalization, but we learned and understood his crimes and social pathology through victim narratives. 
 
I suppose we did not need the rationalizing by Sowell and Castro to learn about social problems emanating from less than required attention to gender rights by the authorities.
 
There is a long standing journalistic tradition of privileging the voices of the victims over the perpetrators, which Udwin’s film ignores. That said, in all this cacophonous controversy over the ban on India’s Daughter it is the courageous parents of  Nirbhaya/Jyoti Singh who have shown all of us that we can fight the scourge of rape and we must never say to our daughters and sisters -- kyon ki tum toh ladki ho (but you are girl).  
 
(Anup Kumar teaches communication at Cleveland State University.)
 
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