The problem is not just rape, but the culture that makes rapes possible; a culture that forces women to live in fear of being raped, a culture that often enough legitimises the use of rape as a tool of showing women ‘their places‘ be it at home or on the road at night, a culture that refuses to grant women rights on their own bodies so much so that rape by husbands is not even considered rape, a culture that forces women’s bodies to become a repository of family, community, and even the nation’s honour so much so that while all of them try to keep women indoors to ‘protect their honour’, the ‘enemy’ outside remains determined to ‘rob’ it by dishonouring the body that carries all the honour.
Seeking to create a connect with the victim and disconnect with the perpetrator, as Leslee Udwin’s documentary does, cannot be an effective tool for encouraging introspection of rape culture mindsets.
The documentary rests on the use of a tool that movies often rely on while trying to create an emotive impact. Most movies often make us identify with the protagonist, and create an emotional-intellectual distance between the audience and the villain. We identify and we ‘otherize’. We associate with the aspirations and qualities of the protagonist and dissociate with the actions and ideas of the villain – the terrain is black and white.
Why, then, do I argue that we should instead humanize (as opposed to demonize) the perpetrators to understand rape culture? If we indeed want the mindsets to change, the challenge is to make people realize that these mindsets do not rest in the heads of some uncivilized beasts who, in the understanding of Sheila Dikshit, have grown up witnessing violence, and in the understanding of some others, have been denied an education. The challenge, as Javed Akhtar articulated in his speech in Rajya Sabha, is to force us to recognize that on most occasions we are not different in terms of our thinking, no matter how many educational degrees we acquire, or how ‘civilised’ our upbringing is.
Do Only Rapists and Their Lawyers Blame Victims?
Let us begin with the first point. Following most incidents of rape, the statements of victim blaming that we get to hear are not from the rapists, but from their legal and other defenders – from our lawmakers, our police, and from the various ‘well wishers’ of mothers, sisters and daughters, determined to protect their dignity at any cost. Most of these statements are presented to us as being well meaning, and with an intention to prevent rape.
In the film, however, only a rape convict and his sensationalist lawyer are shown as mouthing these statements in their most crude form. The convict at one place says – “Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good”. When the convict says it in this form, and the convict alone is heard as saying it, does it allow us to relate to it to the infamous statement by Sheila Dixit about a murdered woman being “too adventurous” for being out late at night?
A woman who herself advised women to not be out late at night, is the film’s vehicle for explaining how men who grow up witnessing violence and are denied education end up becoming rapists.
Thus, only a rapist has a mind of a rapist, and the rest of us are of course ‘civilized’, ‘well raised’ and ‘well educated’ individuals whose only reaction can be of an outrage and never of introspection.
How can introspection be encouraged when a divide is created between how Mukesh thinks and how Sheila Dikshit thinks, and where the audience have the easy option to identify with the latter, whose uncomfortable articulations have been cleverly ‘unselected’!
Leslee Udwin’s admiration for the civilized and disdain for the non- civilized is evidenced not only in the movie but also in her subsequent blog on the NDTV website where she appeals to the civilized in us to come out in her support. Unfortunately, in doing so, she only tries to undo a core component of the women’s movement which is that rape and rape culture are deep seated parts of our civilized worlds and that most women encounter abuse and assaults not by the uncivilized demons outside, but the civilized men in their homes or work places. She conveniently forgets that the culture of ‘silence’ around incidents of rape is more a construction of the ‘civilized world’.
The ‘Mind of a Rapist’?
As a student of Psychology, I have had a considerable exposure to researches examining the minds of rapists, serial killers, and sociopaths. The researches aiming to understand the minds of rapists tried to provide an understanding of what provokes a rapist, what deters a rapist, and go on to suggest what the potential victims could thereby do to prevent themselves from becoming the victims. The ‘potential rapists’ were never a concern. Figuring out the minds of rapists was important, not to examine what goes into making of a rapist and thereby preventing people from becoming rapists; rather, such researches were, and still are, mailed en mass to females to suggest them on how not to become a victim.
The way the movie has been made does appear to follow a similar pattern. It does not in any way invite men to engage with the mind of Mukesh. Instead I can almost imagine men in middle class, upper middle class homes say to the women related to them – “See, we don’t have problem with short skirts or you going out at night, but all men don’t think like us… Now you know how a rapist thinks… it is up to you to decide whether you want to be safe or risk rape”!
The film does nothing to enable a viewer to reach the realization that ‘I too sometimes think like that’. Instead, it allows people to justify their similar thoughts in terms of “when I restrict my wife or sister or daughter from going out at night, it is not because I think women who go out at night deserved to be raped, but because I intend to protect them from men who think like that”.
The ‘Good Daughter’?
Even as the movie tries to portray itself as one against victim blaming, it still feels the need to eulogize the victim. In order to have the audience cry out in outrage over the victim blaming that the convict and his lawyers indulge in, there is a juxtaposed narrative of the victim as a nice girl, who was studious, kind to the underprivileged, very particular in her selection of movies (preferring Life of Pi as opposed to action movies) and as one who had obtained the permission of her parents before going out with a male friend.
Now, these facts about her may be quite true. But is there any attempt to get to know the aspects of the young woman, whom her parents might not have known about or approved of? Do we need to know that a victim is a woman of virtues before we can feel justifiably outraged by acts of victim blaming? What if there was a victim who was not so studious, who preferred action movies, or who had perhaps sneaked out of her house without informing her parents to watch a movie with a boyfriend? Do we really know that ‘Nirbhaya’ never did any of these things? Hasn’t almost every young girl done these things?
The protest slogans of the December 2012 movement defiantly celebrated the right of women to be adventurous, to be disobedient, to be ‘bad girls’, to reject the authority of ‘baap’ and ‘bhai’ (parents and brothers). In its determination to show us only the ‘good girl’ side of the December 16th victim, the film does an injustice to the movement.
The Government’s ban, claiming that the film ‘tarnishes India’s image’, is condemnable and ridiculous. The problem with the film is not that it exposes an ugly reality uncompromisingly, but because it is too economical with inconvenient bits of reality.
Udwin’s film with its focus on civilized values and ‘good girls’ is far less useful in prising open anti-women attitudes than a film like Izzatnagri ki Asabhya Betiyan (Nakul Sawhney’s film about ‘honour’ killings in Haryana), that is about bad and uncivilized girls.
A Film Inspired by the Movement?
Leslee Udwin, in her blog on NDTV website had written – “I came here out of love for India, and because India had led the world by example in the unprecedented protests of its courageous men and women who came out on the streets to fight for my rights as a woman”.
This is a movement of which we are proud to be a part. Proud, because from exclusive demands for justice in one particular case, we saw the movement evolve to raise demands for ‘unconditional freedom for women’. Where is any of this in the movie barring a few glimpses of some slogans being raised and brief bytes from activists who were part of the movement? Why are the participants in the movements not given a chance to analyse rape culture; why instead is the Chief Minister who unleashed water cannons on the participants, asked to do so? Why are the policemen who routinely fail to file F.I.R.s in the cases of rapes, bully the victims into taking back complaints, and who lathicharged and tear-gassed the protesters, shown as being most efficient in catching the culprits in record time?
Forget about the larger context, where are the difficult questions pertaining to this particular case – why was there no patrolling by the police at night? Why was the bus allowed unchecked at the road, and why did it not come to the notice of the police stationed at various check posts? Why wasn’t any politician who indulged in defending rape culture brought to book? Why did Sheila Dikshit refuse to speak to the protestors? Why was the then Police Commissioner routinely allowed to get away with arguments that put onus of the safety on women? How did Ram Singh die in custody? How were such buses with suspicious track records allowed to be on roads in the first place? Where are any of these questions?
Leslee Udwin writes – “This was an opportunity for India to continue to show the world how much has changed since this heinous crime; sadly, the FIR and the banning of the film will see India isolated in the eyes of the world.”
But far from showing ‘how much has changed’, the film neither shows any of the positives, nor how patriarchy continues to assert itself. Where are the voices of women and their opinions on how their life has or has not changed? Where is the examination of structural changes (or the lack thereof) in the institutions?
The only trajectory that the movie does capture for the world to see is of an unrepentant culprit, and that is nothing new – here, or even in the filmmaker’s part of the world.
My problem with the title is not only that it tries to force on us the exclusive identity of women as the nation’s ‘daughters’ – an identity we have been strongly trying to resist; but the even more troubling attempt to disown the ‘sons’ who rape, by demonizing them as‘others’ unrelated to ‘us.’ The last part of the movie, where it almost appears to be upholding the sentiment that the juvenile offender got away with very little sentencing, and repeatedly focuses on slogans demanding hanging of the rapists, only confirms this attempt: hang them because they are not us.
Political and Ethical Questions
The film, at the very end, displays statistics pertaining to rape in various countries of the world. By doing so, Udwin claims she has done her bit to avoid profiling rape culture as unique to India and Indians. But in fact, when BBC screened the documentary, they got rid of that bit. And they could, because it was just a disposable ‘add-on’ to the film itself.
The film reinforces racist stereotypes about Indians and especially about poverty-stricken Indians. But to say so, is not to deny the deep-set rape culture and anti-women attitudes in India. Nor is it to imply that a white Western woman has no right to make a film about India. Very many Indians and western academics alike have given us many insights into India’s problems. The problem with Udwin’s film is that it displays no solidarity, no interest in looking for insights from India’s anti-rape movement or activists. Instead, it tells a simple story full of superficial binaries.
There are also troubling questions about the circumstances in which the film’s interview with the death-row prisoner Mukesh was obtained. From what we know, Mukesh’s mother was paid cash and it was suggested to her that the interview would help her son. Mukesh has signed a ‘consent form’ in English, that says the film will not be telecast until the appeals process is over – unless the appeals process takes over nine months. Did Mukesh understand that he was giving evidence against himself, and that this could adversely affect his appeal? His lawyer is so clearly incompetent and self-serving; a more privileged convict in Mukesh’s place would have a competent lawyer who would never allow such an interview to take place. Mukesh’s interview also implicates other convicts – was their consent taken by the filmmaker? The state prosecution team has said that the filmmaker’s claim of having sought and received their approval, is false and without basis.
This is not to argue that no film on a ‘subjudice’ matter should be screened. The question is: is it ethical to extract a custodial testimony from an impoverished death row prisoner with shockingly incompetent legal counsel, and to then screen the sensational interview in a manner that can affect his appeals? This has very different ethical implications from showing the testimony of powerful individuals implicated in crimes, who enjoy impunity and state protection. Some have declared that it is unlikely that the interview will affect the opinion of judges. Can we really say that media-crafted hatred (and the resulting public frenzy) does not affect judicial decisions, when the death sentences awarded in the December 16th and Shakti Mills cases, as well as in the Parliament Attack case, tell us the opposite? Udwin’s interview with Mukesh is being run by the Indian media with hashtags suggesting that he is an ‘unrepentant rapist’ who, along with the other rapists, should be hanged without delay. Such a campaign takes away from the painstaking focus we sought to achieve on wider rape culture – and once again swings the focus back to patriarchal cries of retribution and revenge.