India’s Daughter. Directed by Leslee Udwin. London: Assassin Films, 2015. 63 minutes.

Daughters of Mother India. Directed by Vibha Bakshi. Mumbai: V2 Film and Design, 2014. 45 minutes.

Reviewed by Maryam Fatima

On December 16, 2012, a twenty-three-year-old medical student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was brutally gang raped on a moving bus in New Delhi while she was returning from watching a movie with her male friend, who was also beaten up.1 Thirteen days later, she succumbed to her extensive injuries and died. That month witnessed the eruption of public rage in the form of an unprecedented number of people taking to streets in protest. Several commentators have tried to reflect on why this particular incident caught the public’s imagination given that rapes, even gang rapes, are not uncommon in Delhi, which has often been infamously dubbed as the “rape capital” of India. Some felt that it was the particularly chilling details of this attack (a rod was inserted into Jyoti’s body and yanked out which resulted in her entrails spilling out), while others argued that it was the symbolic value of this attack that galvanized the crowds (the victim was a young female student representative of a new class of aspirational women). Contrasting this case with yet another one, in which the survivor was humiliated in her legal trial when her panties were held up on a stick, feminist scholar Flavia Agnes argued that the furor generated by Jyoti’s case—including her christening as Nirbhaya (fearless) by the media—was in fact, symptomatic of a much larger problematic: “We hate those who survive to tell their tales of their violations.”2 Regardless of these different postulations, the events of December 2012 were undeniably a turning point in public debates on violence against women in India and helped mobilize hitherto nonpoliticized segments of urban Indian citizenry.

Two documentaries that explore the aftermath of this incident have accrued considerable attention, albeit for very different reasons. India’s Daughter, by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, has been embroiled in controversies ever since the release of its trailers. Drawing strong criticisms both from the conservative faction of its Indian audience who thought it showed India in a poor light and from legal scholars who were concerned about the legal ramifications of a “media trial,” opinions on whether the film should be aired in India were divided. The Indian Government banned (temporarily restrained) the film as the judicial case was underway. The unsavory business of banning aside, the film may confound the audience with its outmoded documentary aesthetic (relying on voiceovers and talking heads, thereby perpetuating the trope of the absent, “objective” filmmaker) and a distasteful re-creation of the rape scene bordering on the sensational. But perhaps the most unnerving experience comes from watching Mukesh, one of the four rapists (and a juvenile male) present his unrepentant and chilling testimony. While the filmmaker has maintained that she had all the requisite permissions needed to conduct her interview, commentators have been skeptical of its affective register. In his conversation with the (presumably absent) filmmaker, Mukesh argues that the fault lay with Jyoti, who shouldn’t have been out on the streets at night, and reveals that the group only meant to discipline her and her friend’s behavior. In framing the interview with overhead shots of the slums where the men lived, the film reveals its problematic politics most visibly. By highlighting the economic backgrounds of the rapists, the film advances a causal relationship between economic deprivation (specifically migrant laborers in the case of Delhi) and sexual violence against women. The film, however, does accord dignity to Jyoti’s parents, who are struggling to cope with this tragedy, by favoring their narrative over everyone else’s. Moreover, Udwin continues to assert that her film is an homage to the hordes of protestors and activists who rose to the occasion, and while the film does manage to capture this fervor through extensive footage of the protests in Delhi, it dangerously falls short in unpacking sexual violence beyond the immediacy of the incident and, instead, ends up sensationalizing it.

The second documentary that has garnered considerable attention, winning India’s National Award for Best Film on Social Issues, is Vibha Bakshi’s Daughters of Mother India. The most conspicuous similarity between the two films, apart from their content, is the way their titles frame women as daughters, a trope that is deeply problematic in its reduction of a woman’s status to her web of familial relations alone. However, by placing the woman in relationship to the conceptualizations of “Mother India,” Bakshi connects this trope to the rhetoric employed by Hindu nationalists (reminiscent of the Madonna/whore binary) and evokes the sense that the nation has failed its daughters/female citizenry. Even though the film begins with shots of an unmarked bus moving through near-deserted streets at night in the city, the effect is not as sensational as Udwin’s because there is no attempt to re-create the actual rape scene. While it spends some time dwelling on the specificities of Jyoti’s rape, as well Gudiya’s (a five-year-old who was gang raped just months after Jyoti), its political investments are in unraveling the entrenched patriarchal structures that enable rape culture. The filmmaker’s insertion of her subjectivity in the film is admirable, and the mode of the film is fairly journalistic, though not entirely free from pontification. Perhaps most strikingly Bakshi’s film too, invariably, falls into the trap of locating the causes of rape in poverty and deprivation and reifies the particularly pernicious dyads of urban/rural, educated/uneducated, and middle-class/poor. Furthermore, the questions posed to Gudiya’s family are gravely invasive and must be discussed as part of documentary ethics in classroom settings.

As pedagogical tools the films cannot be ignored for their explorations of the urgency with which the larger debate on sexual violence in India was rekindled after December 2012. However, they need to be watched with caution and contextualized through examples of the trailblazing and inventive activism being undertaken by Indian feminists, such as Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade, and Sameera Khan’s project, Why Loiter? (with a book by the same name), which proposes loitering as a way of expanding women’s access to public spaces in cities; Blank Noise, a public art project that seeks to confront street harassment through direct action; and Pinjra Tod (break the cage/jails), a student-led campaign from universities in Delhi that challenges the moral policing of women through the restrictions imposed on their movement by hostels, landlords, and campuses.3 Educators might also want to assess the necessity of providing trigger warnings given the graphic content of the two films.

1 My decision to use Jyoti’s actual name is in line with Krupa Shandilya, who has written about the erasure of agency that renaming Jyoti as Nirbhaya entails. See “Nirbhaya’s Body: The Politics of Protest in the Aftermath of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape,” Gender and History 27, no. 2 (2015): 465-86.

2 Flavia Agnes, “Why India Loves Nirbhaya, Hates Suzette,” early TIMES March 20, 2015.

3 Shilpa Phadka, Shilpa Ranade, and Sameera Khan, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (New Delhi: Penguin, 2011); Blank Noise; Pinjra Tod.

Maryam Fatima is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has also worked as a curatorial assistant with Magic Lantern Films (India), which seeks to promote the diversity of documentary and experimental styles in Indian filmmaking. Her dissertation explores postcolonial literature from India, Pakistan, and Egypt.