Should governments be allowed to ban films that realistically depict the patriarchal tendencies of their people? Is it right to demand that the film be pulled from theaters because its premise is subjective? Can such a ban really be effective in the digital age?
India faces many of these questions after a court banned “India’s Daughter,” a UK-produced documentary, which covers the infamous 2012 gang rape in Delhi that shook the conscience of the entire country.
Produced and directed by Leslie Udwin, the documentary, which aired for the first time on BBC Four Wednesday night, prominently features a key convict in the case. Udwin has flown out of the country, fearing arrest. In the film, Mukesh Singh, awaiting execution after being sentenced to death by a special court last year, justifies the crime and blames his victim. Singh’s interview has enraged many in India. The BBC had planned to air the film on Women’s Day, March 8, but it moved up the telecast after protesters called for a ban.
Reactionary elements in the Indian media called into question the morality and legality of interviewing a convict, who is awaiting an appeals hearing. Bowing to public pressure, the government opted to ban the documentary. That move agitated opposition leaders, who condemned the government’s decision and demanded that Delhi allow screenings of the film. Some reports point to Delhi’s fears that the documentary would diminish India’s international standing.
But in “India’s Daughter,” Udwin seems most concerned with how the male mindset operates in a patriarchal society. Singh is not the only voice that reflects that sentiment: his lawyers seem to share the same views.
The documentary hasn’t just angered members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, it has also offended women’s rights advocates, who were at the forefront of the public reaction to the December 2012 incident, but for considerably different reasons.
“We don’t agree that the government should ban the film because it sullies India’s image,” notes Kavita Krishnan, a prominent women’s rights activist and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, in an interview with The Diplomat. “Our argument is that the documentary does not depict the larger conversation around rape. It does not make a connection with the larger debate about rape culture in society.” Krishnan was at the forefront of the rallies that erupted two years ago in the aftermath of the incident.
Krishnan fears that the filmmakers are too concerned with the minutiae of the case. “By highlighting the interview of the convict, the film reinforces the argument for execution. It moves the discourse away from the atrocities and a rape culture that continues to be prevalent in Indian society.”
Ankita Anand, a young activist and a vocal voice for women’s rights, echoes that sentiment. To Anand, the title “India’s Daughter,” is too paternalistic.
“I’m against the kind of censorship that allows speeches that incite religious hatred but bans the uncomfortable questions that show the state in the bad light,” she says, adding that “in cases like this, the filmmakers should have spent more time ensuring that rights of the accused and the victims were respected.”
Anand is the founder of Aatish, a theatre group that aims to bring voice to marginalized groups in Indian society. “The outrage that the documentary has incited is good if it makes us question our conduct, and gives us the courage to question institutions like the family and marriage, which are often the source of such violence.
Badrinath Singh, father of the victim in the case, feels that “the documentary is not bad in taste but short shrifts the main issue.” Still, he thinks that “that the film is a mirror to society and everyone should watch it.”
Certainly, the government has the power to ban the film. But it can’t ban the questions that India is asking.