Saturday, November 14, 2015

India’s Daughter: Tragedy, Outrage, and Censorship in New Delhi

It was horrific crime that shocked the world and inspired unprecedented demonstrations all over India. In its wisdom, the government sprang into action, banning a BBC documentary featuring an interview with one of the convicted rapist-murderers. However, in the digital age, they will never cram the genie back into the bottle. The attitudes expressed by Murkesh Singh and the two appalling lawyers who represented the unrepentant predators are indeed incendiary, precisely because they are so widely held. However, Leslee Udwin also pays tribute to Jyoti Singh, the medical student with so much to offer her country, so cruelly prevented from fulfilling her promise. Viewers will share the outrage expressed by the New Delhi protestors after watching Udwin’s India’s Daughter (promo here), which airs this Monday on PBS, as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Jyoti Singh came from humble means, but through hard work and family sacrifice, she had successfully completed medical school. With her internship starting soon, Singh decided to enjoy an evening at the movies with a male friend (widely reported to be Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which hardly seems to deserve such tangential infamy). For five men and one juvenile whose name remains undisclosed, this constituted immodest behavior and therefore gave them license to gang-rape and brutalize her. Along with her battered companion, Singh was left for dead by the side of the road.

To their initial credit, the New Delhi cops swept up the rapist-killers pretty quickly. That would be Murkesh Singh, his brother Ram Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur, and the juvenile six months too young to be tried as an adult. However, when it became clear the authorities and media just didn’t get the seriousness of the situation or the pervasiveness of the underlying misogyny, tens of thousands took to the streets and took the blows of the police batons that followed.

It is hard to say which is more damning, the dissembling of Murkesh Singh or the chauvinist ramblings of attorneys ML Sharma and A.P. Singh. Evidently, both counselors now stand to lose their licenses, because you can be disbarred in India for making extremely stupid public comments (perhaps the one enlightened aspect of the Indian legal system worth replicating internationally).

Udwin’s interview subjects cogently explain the subsequently legal reforms instituted as a result of the 2012 New Delhi attack, as well as the widespread skepticism regarding their implementation. Frankly, the film is remarkably comprehensive, considering it clocks in just shy of an hour. Yet, despite the controversial honesty of the comments made by the convicted killer and the two defense attorneys, it is the raw, inconsolable grief of Jyoti Singh’s parents that will truly cut viewers off at the knees.

There is not much left to say after the credits roll. However, in a mistaken attempt to make it feel more universal, Udwin closes with rape and abuse statistics culled from nations around the world, but since she is not using consistent criteria, it looks suspiciously cherry-picked and therefore deadens the film’s impact. That is about her only misstep—and given the grooming gang scandals that rocked Rotherham and Birmingham in the UK, the strategy is not necessarily wrong, just clumsily executed. Regardless, India’s Daughter is a powerful combination of elegiac humanism and scalding expose. Highly recommended, especially given its censored status, India’s Daughter premieres this Monday (11/16) on most PBS outlets.