WHAT REMAINS to be said about India’s Daughter, the controversial documentary detailing the 2012 gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh in Munirka, Delhi?
The first time I saw the hour-long film, which has been banned in India, I was alone in a university library carrel, wincing over a pirated version as it played on my laptop. I had to pause the film many times, so disturbing were its contents: the tear-streaked faces of Jyoti Singh’s parents; an interview with a convicted killer talking about the victim’s disembowelment; scenes of abject poverty in both rural and metropolitan India. The second time I saw the film, as part of a discussion with faculty and students at the University of Chicago, I actually saw the film.
In the three months since its release by BBC and the ban by the Indian government, India’s Daughter, directed by London-based filmmaker Leslee Udwin, has become the latest lynchpin in a decades-old debate about Western representations of India and the Indian woman’s subjection to the dueling discourses of imperialism and patriarchy. Who is Udwin, critics have asked, and why is Jyoti Singh’s story her story to tell? Is sexual violence an Indian problem or a human one?
The debate surrounding the film has drawn comparisons to the indignant Indian responses initially drawn by Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), two texts which critiqued the narrative of India’s global ascension in the “Asian Century,” as well as to the fire drawn by Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927).
In what amounted to a defense of British colonialism, Mayo argued that Indians were constitutionally characterized by “inertia, helplessness, lack of initiative and originality, lack of staying power and of sustained loyalties, sterility of enthusiasm, weakness of life-vigor itself.” Her damning polemic, which dealt at length with the issue of child marriage as a locus of rampant sexual abuse of Indian women, drew impassioned critiques from prominent Indians, including M.K. Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, and Dhan Gopal Mukherji. In Ian Jack’s reading, Udwin is a modern-day Mayo, who presented “accurate enough” facts about India, but was rejected on the grounds of being “a foreigner … a hostile witness.”
If Udwin’s “outsider” status has raised objections (“Mine is India’s story about hope,” says Vibha Bakshi, whose 2014 documentary Daughters of Mother India was released before India’s Daughter but has emerged as the nation’s “insider” response to Udwin’s film), a second critique centers on the question of the film’s symbolization of Jyoti Singh as a daughter, whether her parents’ or India’s.
The “India’s daughter” moniker was first used by the Indian media, who, respecting conventions not to release the name of a rape victim without the family’s permission, also referred to Jyoti Singh as “Damini” and “Nirbhaya.” Nevertheless, Udwin’s title has been read as reductive. “[We] are more than what we are seen as by our parents,” says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, who appears in the film but has emerged as one of its vocal critics.
Nationalist mythologists in India have long figured the nation as “mother,” as Bharat Mata, a “motherland” for speakers of “mother tongues.” Mayo appropriated this figuration, as has Bakshi. In a line of critique that inverts but echoes earlier problematizations of this maternal iconography, Priyamvada Gopal, faculty at the University of Cambridge, questions “the patriarchal language which denotes women as daughters, wives or sisters entitled to protection in that capacity rather than as human beings who will assert themselves and resist attacks on their bodies and rights.” In Gopal’s view, Udwin’s titular choice reflects an outsider’s inability or unwillingness to recognize Indian women as individual agents — a critique also leveled at Mayo, if fairly in that case.
Ironically, as the historian Mrinalini Sinha has shown, Mayo’s portrayal of Indian women as the victims of Indian men actually catalyzed powerful reform efforts by liberal Indian feminists and women’s organizations. Their activism transformed reigning understandings of the Indian woman’s domesticity and signification of Indian national cultural difference, as well as expanded and complicated what Sinha calls “the ideological repertoire of Indian nationalism,” proving that some good can come of imperialist propaganda, after all.
There is a simple fact that most readings of the film tend to elide, and that is that India’s Daughter is a film — or, to put a finer point on it, a work of art. Missing this point has meant that critics like Krishnan consistently conflate the film’s subject, the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, with the film, India’s Daughter. My point is not just that India’s Daughter might be bad politics but good art, or bad art and good politics, but rather that the art is crucial to an understanding of how the politics works: through expressive relations and partial representations, through the strategic marshaling of admiration and desire, sympathy and horror, and through the development and display of a symbolic vocabulary — including the language of “daughter” — that allows the film to reach a higher level of meaning.
The problem posed by India’s Daughter is the problem of the documentary: a genre that marries verifiable truth claims with technologies of cinematic artifice. The film’s explicit signification of real-world people and events seems, on the one hand, to preclude the exercise of aesthetic judgment. On the other hand, the narrative film makes extensive use of cuts, close-up shots, and staged reenactments, alternates the pacing and rhythm of scenes, includes a dramatic musical score, presents edited interviews without preceding questions or commentary, and selectively incorporates existing media footage.
For one reviewer, India’s Daughter’s deployment of “camera technique[s] used in movies” reveals Udwin’s “predilection for the dramatic”: the film “disdain[s] nuance in favour of excess.” But documentary films are by definition the product of camera techniques used in movies; they are not reproductions of the world, but heavily mediated and situated representations of it. This doesn’t mean they are any less “true.” For example, by dramatically marking themselves as performances, and not replicas, of an event, reenactments actually validate the documentary’s overall purchase on the real.
India’s Daughter is primarily comprised of interviews with people involved in or hailed as experts on the case, including an extended interview with one of the six men convicted, Mukesh Singh. This interview has caused considerable consternation, both from those who support the film’s ban on the grounds that the case is currently being appealed in the Indian Supreme Court, and those who oppose the ban on principle, but loathe giving screen time to an unrepentant convict.
If the sole criterion for judgment were the film’s subject — the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh — then it might make sense to withdraw our collective ear from Mukesh Singh, who was driving the bus in which Jyoti was assaulted, as well as from the defense lawyers, M.L. Sharma and A.P. Singh, whose thoroughgoing misogyny (“In our culture, there is no place for a woman”) is on full display in the film. Surely we’ve heard enough from the likes of them through the courageous testimony and brutalized body of Jyoti Singh.
But the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh is not equivalent to the film, India’s Daughter, which uses the occasion of the rape and murder as a rhetorical device to broach attendant issues of caste, class, and sexual politics in contemporary India. It’s not a question of whether the film exceeds its subject or, conversely, could never do justice to it, but rather that we’re dealing with two entirely different quantities. As far as the film is concerned, the interviews with Mukesh Singh, M.L. Sharma, and A.P. Singh, as well as with the families of the convicted killers, are just as significant as the testimonies from Jyoti’s parents, Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh. The former provide insight into a broad-based culture of male supremacy that is exacerbated by (but, importantly, not rooted in) poverty, while the latter, who used their limited assets to support their daughter’s education and have refused to be silenced by the primitive public discourse on rape, emerge as inspiring, enlightened symbols of modern India.
Although India’s Daughter is to a large extent a conventional documentary, it troubles at least one reigning conception of the genre, and that is of documentary as a non-allegorical medium. In his well-known account, film theorist Bill Nichols argues that documentaries offer “a way of seeing the historical world directly rather than into a fictional allegory.” For Nichols, allegory is strictly a property of fiction; it is a technique for the generation of “second meanings” and “disguised commentary” that runs against documentary’s real-world referentiality.
But allegory has never been just a property of a text, but rather is a context-specific mode of reading and viewing through which the self-reflexivity of the text itself emerges. Unmoored from the geographical coordinates of the scene of the crime, and taken up as filmic occasion, the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh has inevitably been invested with many layers of additive meaning. In India’s Daughter, Jyoti becomes other than herself; her signifying potential intensifies. She not only metonymically becomes “India’s daughter,” but also allegorically becomes liberal India, young India, humanist potential, even, in an Arendtian vein, “the miracle that saves the world.”
Those of us steeped in the Western liberal tradition are so used to valuing individuality over any other mode of subjectivity that what I’m suggesting might, on the face of it, seem exploitive. How would an allegorical reading of India’s Daughter serve the parents of Jyoti Singh? Wouldn’t honoring the life of the deceased mean returning her to herself as an individual, multifaceted woman, and not perpetuating her iconicity as the nation’s daughter or embedding her in the social strictures of family life?
I’m not so sure. What is ultimately most powerful about India’s Daughter is the way that it utilizes the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh as a point of entry into the dominant, contradictory narratives of India’s emerging middle class and aspirational globality. Jyoti, the film tells us, was studying to be a doctor, a striking accomplishment given her family’s humble background (her father worked as a baggage handler at the airport). She spoke good English. She supported (and, after becoming a doctor, would continue supporting) her parents. She was putting herself through school by working nightshifts at a call center.
This is a particularly revealing point. Call center agents, specifically nightshift-working females, have for over a decade now been a dominant symbol of modern India’s contradictions. A recent sociological study describes the call center agent as “a placeholder for a temporal rupture that threatens to render Indian futurity unintelligible from its traditional pasts.” On the one hand, the call center agent is a sign of independence and autonomy; she earns, works at night, and interacts with women and men. On the other hand, she is a threat to so-called Indian values.
The vexed figure of the call center agent provides some insight into how India’s Daughter’s portrayal of Jyoti may not just be a violent appropriation of her narrative, but a strategic taking up of the symbolic vocabulary on offer in the current moment. This, after all, is what students, feminists, and community leaders across India also did back in December 2012 when faced with the horror of Jyoti’s death. They seized the moment of national and global attention to call for justice and freedom, not only for Jyoti Singh, but also for Neelofer and Aasiya Jan, raped and murdered in 2009; for schoolteacher and political activist Soni Sori, sexually assaulted while in police custody in 2011; and for countless other victims and survivors, including hundreds of millions of women subject to the daily torment of sexual harassment euphemistically referred to in India as “Eve-teasing.”
India’s Daughter shows us that the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh spurred vigorous debate in India on the question of the death penalty, inspired the landmark Verma Committee Report on Amendments to Criminal Law, and brought international attention to the history of feminist activism in India, a robust, plural movement that both precedes and exceeds the contours of this particular case. The film powerfully uses the story of Jyoti Singh as an allegory of aspirational humanity under mortal threat from systemic inequality and lack of education. Its depiction of one young woman’s exceptionality in life is a reminder that, as Hannah Arendt once wrote, although we all must die, we “are not born in order to die but in order to begin.” Consequently, it is an important opening into a discussion about Indian and world futures, plural: for innocent and guilty, poor and rich, urban and rural, man, woman, and child.
“Jyoti has become a symbol,” Badri Singh says toward the close of the film. It is, against all odds, a moment of thanks.