Leslee Udwin speaks on the ban on ‘India’s Daughter’, her documentary on rape

By filming the rapist and getting him to speak his mind, the documentary aims to reveal to us the mindset of the rapist and what got him to behave this way.


Leslee Udwin. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 13, 2016

Leslee Udwin , award-winning filmmaker and producer of the documentary, India’s Daughter, spoke to VIDYA VENKAT about the hypocrisy inherent in continuing the ban on it. Last week, the Delhi High Court refused to interfere with the one-and-a-half-year-old ban on the programme that was based on the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape case, saying the issue was pending before the trial court. In a Skype interaction from London, she challenged the claims made in favour of the ban, saying it was an open assault on freedom of expression. Excerpts:

The Delhi High Court last week dismissed the case challenging the ban on India’s Daughter. What are the hurdles before you in ensuring that the documentary is screened in India?

India’s Daughter has already been screened in well over 60 countries. Unfortunately in India, because of the ban, it has not been possible to screen the documentary at all. The documentary is about the global pandemic of violence against women and uses the case of the Delhi gang rape to illustrate the point about the mindsets that are responsible for, and even encourage such human rights violations.

I have read the High Court ruling dismissing the Public Interest litigation pleas to lift the ban, and frankly I find it hard to understand what the judges are thinking of. The High Court has argued that the trial court is still hearing “the matter” based on the judicial orders of March, 2015 (presumably the case against the ban?), so it can’t do anything. I would like to ask the learned judges: “the matter of the ban, where is it being heard?” I do not understand their reasoning. It is the matter of the sentencing and conviction of the rapists that is still being heard (in the Supreme Court, not the trial court) and this has nothing to do with the matter of the ban which was before the High Court last week. What shocks me also is that the judges refused to even consider the matter of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) advisory, arguing that since it was “an advisory” it wasn’t necessary to examine it. But don’t the learned judges know that if the TV channels showed this documentary against the advisory of the MIB, they would lose their licenses? That is why they dare not screen the documentary! I feel this whole business of the ban is like a parallel universe – it is Kafkaesque. But my problem is with the very legitimacy of the ban orders that were issued in the first place.

The only positive outcome of the ban has been that everyone has seen the documentary. But then they are seeing the wrong, leaked version of the documentary.

One of the legal hurdles to screening the documentary has been the fact that you named the rape victim in it… Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned that in his interview to the Time magazine in 2015.

Yes, this is the excuse that has been provided, I believe, to throw a smokescreen over the matter of the undemocratic repression of free speech. An Indian version of the documentary that I had especially edited and produced for NDTV and audiences in India did not name the rape victim. I was respectful of the laws of India that do not allow a rape victim to be named. The whole country saw the wrong version, the leaked BBC version of the documentary. I actually feel that the responsibility for naming the victim in India lies at the feet of those who banned the film as this ensured, in a digital age, that the international version would be hacked and leaked.

As far as naming her in the international version goes, even Wikipedia contained her name before I even went to India to shoot the documentary. It was freely available online, so it is absolute nonsense to say that that is the reason why the documentary isn’t being screened.

Another “legal issue” being cited is the trial in the Supreme Court, which is still hearing the appeals of the convicts. Screening the film might prejudice the appeal, some argue. I would like to point out here that before I released the documentary, I had approached seven legal luminaries from the Supreme and High Courts for their advice on the legal implications of the film. All seven of them, including two who gave formal written opinions, said that the screening of the documentary can in no way prejudice the trial, because the Supreme Court Judges cannot admit nor weigh any evidence in their minds which has not already been on the record in the lower courts.. Also, if the fear of swaying the case is so strong what, about the prejudicial articles in the press that were written actually during the original trial? Was that ok?

I have been very responsible in making the documentary. In fact, I had fairly startling new evidence, which I removed from the film, in order to be absolutely certain not to influence the ongoing trial. I even went to the lengths of showing the documentary to the prosecution team in this case, who said there were no issues and the film was very true to the case. It is never my wish to interfere with the judicial process.

Some also feel that by featuring one of the accused the documentary is giving a platform to the rapist to air his views…

If that were the case, then will this government, therefore, agree that it stands by every parliamentarian in India who made derogatory and misogynist statements in parliament? and will this government now ban them and castigate parliament itself because it gave them a platform for airing their views, because we have all heard views from parliamentarians which are just as devaluing of women and just as offensive. My point here is don’t be hypocritical. By filming the rapist and getting him to speak his mind, the documentary aims to reveal to us the mindset of the rapist and what got him to behave this way. Senior policing experts like Kiran Bedi have long demanded that every rapist arrested and convicted needs to be interviewed so that we can understand what goes on inside their minds and stand a chance of changing them. Those who are objecting to the documentary for this reason are using it as an excuse to hide their own sense of shame. Or, they have not seen the documentary in the first place.

India is days away from celebrating Independence Day. Do you see the ban on screening the documentary as a clamp down on freedom of speech and expression?

Yes. Since India is going to celebrate Independence Day soon, I would like to remind everyone of what Ambedkar, who framed the Constitution of India, had admirably done by introducing Article 14, which guarantees equality for women in India under the law. Even in America, there has been no equal rights amendment act, which means in the eyes of the law, women are still not equal. The American Constitution says all men are equal, not all men and women are equal. Demands to revise its constitution has been resisted and consistently called out. The reason I’m citing this is, in spite of America not having these progressive laws, they are fine with the media discussing and decrying crimes against women. In the U.S. even highly reputed and influential academic institutions like Stanford and Harvard are heavily criticised in documentaries and media for their rape cases, which the institutions also try to hide. But there is no effort to shut off the media from talking about it. Take the case of Brock Turner from Stanford, for instance. The case was discussed everywhere. And the documentary “The Hunting Ground” which heavily criticises America’s college campuses where 1 in 4 girls is raped, was not banned. Then why ban a documentary that discusses the Delhi gang rape?

There were concerns the documentary painted India in a poor light abroad…

When I went to India to make the documentary I had a positive impulse about it. I was amazed to see how people had come out on the streets with such commitment to fight for women. But what has upset me is how everyone, the government, the courts, and some of the people have behaved so defensively on the issue. They have to start considering how selfish they are being in thinking only about themselves and not thinking about women and girls instead. I come from a country (Israel) where there is much criticism regarding the way it handles the Palestinians. But I am not defensive about that. When it comes to human rights abuses of people, no matter who is abusing them, you should stand up and say I won’t have it. In fact when it is ‘your own’ people doing it, you have an even bigger responsibility to call the practice out. I would have expected India to raise this documentary, not resist it like this. The shame has everything to do with the ban, and nothing to do with the documentary.

The documentary is not about India-shaming. In the end, there is a roll call of statistics, which shows how sexual violence is a disease everywhere, including in countries like the U.S. and UK. But a section of Indians, including many feminists, have supported the call for the ban on the documentary. I am so disappointed in these people. The reason they have turned against the documentary is because I am an outsider. They said I knew nothing about the Indian feminist movement. They wished the documentary should have been about them. What these so-called feminists do not understand is that this is not a movie about them or their movement. I was also shocked to be told by one of the prominent Indian feminists on a panel at Oxford University that the reason they had been so angry as to call for the ban was because I had set the release date of the documentary for March 8, International Women’s Day. I was told “you knew how many events we had planned on that day”, which would get ignored because of the attention the documentary would grab

Since the rape laws were amended after the 2012 gang rape case, men are now concerned that the laws are too stringent and it goes completely against them…

Law is one thing. But implementation is another thing. And that is sorely lacking in India. I am sick to death of the hypocrisy inherent in these views. In the course of researching for the movie, I found out from a person standing at the site where the 2012 rape victim lay bleeding with her male friend in Delhi, that a police car had stopped by within five minutes after they were found there. The 2 policemen, when told that it looked like a rape case, then got into their car and drove away, leaving them to bleed. The government should go after these policemen who ignored their duty and behaved this way and journalists should investigate this. In light of this, imagine how I feel about these ‘poor’ men who are complaining that stringent rape laws ‘go against them’? It doesn’t merit an answer.

In the end, let us remember what Ambedkar said: we will measure the progress of Indian society by the progress of its women. When we look at the issue of bans, remember when the Indian government banned 857 pornography sites last year and there was such an outcry by Indian men: “How dare you take away our right to watch porn? We’re supposed to be a democracy!? ” the men cried, and the govt lifted that ban in a matter of a week. But even after a year and a half of the release of India’s Daughter (it has won 28 awards globally, including the Peabody Awards 2016), the government continues to block it. What does it say about their values and their priorities? We need to question that.

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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