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It might be an act of optimism to call Jyoti Singh India’s daughter. Certainly the 23-year-old medical student was embraced by the many thousands who took to the streets in outrage after she was gang-raped and tortured on a Delhi bus, literally eviscerated and left for dead. And for all the horror and despair of its subject, Leslee Udwin’s documentary about the December 2012 crime is in many ways a hopeful portrait, focusing not just on the attack but on the ensuing protests and policy changes.
Udwin captures an image-conscious country forced to take action after it’s caught with the whole world watching, the brutal effects of antiquated and noxious attitudes toward women exposed. But India’s Daughter is also a deeply unsettling confrontation with the men, educated and uneducated alike, who hold fast to those attitudes and, unbelievably, view Singh as the transgressor.
The hourlong film, which was broadcast in the U.K. in early 2015 and has been banned in India, uses a straightforward newsmagazine approach, without the breathlessness that often accompanies such stories. Its interviews with Singh’s parents, as well as families of the rapists and one of the convicted men, lend specificity to the story’s emotional component and illuminate a profound chasm between outward-facing progress and deeply ingrained provincialism.
Voiceover narration provides the basic, sickening facts of what happened to Jyoti Singh on her way home from a movie with a friend. Her perceived offense was that she was out at night with an “unknown” male — i.e., someone who wasn’t her husband or relative. (Her companion, Awindra Pratap Pandey, was severely beaten on the private bus they boarded, and survived.)
For Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus who spoke at length with Udwin, such open, modern behavior is not just foreign but beyond comprehension. He recalls the events of the December night with no remorse or emotion of any kind, his lack of affect chilling as he explains that rape is primarily the fault of the woman. Beyond her prison footage of the six arrested attackers (one is known only as “the juvenile,” his face always covered), Udwin visits the impoverished villages and labyrinthine urban colonies where they were raised. Her vivid images of the constraints of poverty register not as an excuse for the men’s actions but as an illustration of retrograde realities, the conditions and beliefs that can persist in a nation as it claims an ever-higher profile in the global economy.
When the men’s defense attorneys, decades older than their clients and presumably well educated, spout the same ideas — one likens women to flowers and diamonds, precious but not quite human — a queasy apprehension of the cultural terrain takes hold.
Brief, impressionistic images of the reenacted crime are the film’s least effective elements. But Udwin uses actual surveillance footage of the bus to haunting effect: In what might have been a red flag to more alert and attuned law enforcement, the vehicle circles the same streets again and again while Jyoti Singh is repeatedly assaulted.
The only images of Jyoti that appear in the film are photos of her as a wide-eyed toddler. In their unspeakable grief and manifest love, her parents, Badri and Sasha Singh, offer incisive memories of an inquisitive, independent girl who they cherished from the first, despite her gender. The bias against women is so strong that female feticide is a common practice in India. In one of the film’s most indelible moments, Jyoti’s mother recalls someone remarking to her soon after her daughter’s birth, “You’re celebrating as if it’s a boy.”
Production company: Assassin Films
Director: Leslee Udwin
Producer: Leslee Udwin
Executive producers: Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Mette Hoffman Meyer, Mette Heide, Susan Ann Davies
Editor: Anuradha Singh
No rating, 62 minutes
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