The AFI DOCS film festival screened Leslee Udwin’s retrospective documentary, “India’s Daughter,” last week in Washington, D.C. The film is Udwin’s directorial debut and her first documentary, although she has produced six other films and worked as a professional actor for decades.
The hour-long film chronicles the case of Indian medical student Jyoti Singh, who was brutally raped on a bus by a group of men in December 2012. The night Singh and her friend were attacked in Delhi, they were returning home from an early movie. She had just finished a year of medical school – a remarkable triumph for a girl who had grown up in poverty. Singh survived the attack, but she died of her injuries only days later. Her case spurred public backlash against the cultural norms and laws that may tacitly condone gender-based violence in India.
The film opens with footage of the month-long protests in India that were sparked by Jyoti Singh’s murder. These scenes quickly transition into interviews with Singh’s parents, the convicted rapists and their defense lawyers. The scenes toggle back and forth in stark contrast to one another – the anguish and heartbreak of the parents clashing against the indignation and absence of remorse expressed by the perpetrators and their lawyers. These first scenes create a narrative that is enraging yet simplistic; Jyoti Singh was raped and murdered by villains who simply lacked basic human empathy. About 15 minutes in, I was wondering what it all meant, and if this kind of violence could even be prevented.
However, the story then took several steps back to swiftly place Singh's case in the larger sociocultural context of modern-day India, and a more complex narrative began to take shape. Through interviews with private citizens, government officials, and social activists, among others, it becomes clear that India is undergoing a cultural revolution that is challenging long-held beliefs and assumptions about women.
In this context, Jyoti Singh was not simply a martyr or victim of a senseless act of violence; she was a symbol of all Indian people fighting for women’s equality and opportunity. At the same time, the men responsible for Singh's death weren't sociopaths. It may be fair to say they were products of a sub-culture that told them from birth that women are not valuable, and that they exist only to serve whatever needs men have. Add to that the fact that Singh's attackers grew up in abject poverty – as do nearly 50 percent of Indian citizens – and the blame starts to shift from the attackers themselves to larger forces that have perpetuated a cycle of violent oppression against women.
This is where Udwin could have made a tragic mistake. “India’s Daughter” could have very easily slipped into the tired, familiar trope of the Western filmmaker who stands in judgement of the “backward” values held by developing country. Thankfully, this is not the case. Udwin keeps her voice almost entirely out of the film, and it is Indians who express their opinions and demand change.
It can be tempting for the Western viewer to think of the events in India as something that happens in “other,” less developed countries, but it's nearly impossible to watch footage of the Indian protests and not to think of similar demonstrations on American college campuses over the issue of sexual violence and gender equality. Somewhat ironically, the lack of a Western voice in the film is what makes the story so relatable to a Western audience. It allows us to see the parallels between the fight against gender-based violence in India and the fight for gender equality everywhere else, led by a nation’s own citizens.
With "India's Daughter," Leslee Udwin proves herself a master storyteller. She carefully leads the viewer on a journey that begins and ends with one woman, but reminds the viewer of the tragic universality of Jyoti Singh's story.