'India's Daughter' Filmmaker Defends Documentary Amid Growing Criticism

Leslee Udwin - H 2015
AP Images

Leslee Udwin - H 2015

Leslee Udwin told a Beverly Hills audience that she believes the film is being rebuffed in India because of "national pride."

Filmmaker Leslee Udwin, whose documentary on a notorious Indian rape case has been banned by authorities in that country, is on a campaign to defend her work, which was commissioned by the BBC.

This week, she told a Beverly Hills audience at an onstage salon hosted by Tina Brown that opposition to her work in India is the product of misogynist cultural traditions and misplaced national pride.

"Like many countries on Earth national pride comes into the decision," Udwin told an audience gathered for Brown's Women in the World gathering at the Montage Beverly Hills hotel on Wednesday. "I think it's a misplaced notion. I think it has boomeranged and backfired."

Udwin, who has done numerous Q&As on the film in recent days, added that it "breaks my heart" that India, the world's largest democracy, opted to engage in the very "un-democratic act" of banning a film.

Though banned from broadcast on the Indian channel of the BBC, which commissioned the film, India's Daughter is circulating online in India and one activist screened it in the neighborhood where three of the five rapists lived. Earlier this month, it premiered in the U.S. at NYC's Gramercy Theater, with Meryl Streep, Dakota Fanning and Coldplay's Chris Martin attending.

Earlier this month, New Delhi legally suppressed the broadcast of India's Daughter, saying the film was likely to cause a "breach of law and order." The documentary was scheduled to air on the BBC in both the U.K. and in India on Sunday in conjunction with International Women's Day.

The film explores the 2012 the assault on a 23-year-old student, Jyoti Singh, who was returning from an evening movie with her boyfriend, when the couple boarded a private bus in South Delhi. The five men already aboard—four adults and one teenager—beat the boyfriend and repeatedly raped Singh before dumping them both naked beside the road. The assault was so savage that, despite multiple surgeries in both India and Singapore, Singh died of her injuries.

A public outcry—mainly by women—lead to the arrest and conviction of three of the men and the adolescent. The fifth defendant hanged himself in his jail cell.

The local controversy around India's Daughter has arisen largely because Udwin interviewed on camera one of the convicted rapists—whose case still in on appeal—and a defense lawyer. Both men expressed utter indifference to rape and blamed Singh for the brutal attack.

The rapist—Murkesh Singh—told Udwin that while Jyoti was "being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they'd have dropped her off after 'doing her,' and only hit the boy. ... A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. … Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes."

One of the rapists' defense attorneys also told Udwin on camera that, "If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight."

At the Montage Wednesday, Udwin—who appeared alongside journalist Barkha Dutt — told the audience that she interviewed the rapists because she felt "compelled to do it because I believe without actually understanding these rapists, these men who commit such heinous offenses against women, how can you change them."

India's Daughter, she said, "was always designed to unleash a campaign that has global objectives. We must be keenly aware that all of us the world over … we all must hang our heads in shame until we correct this imbalance."

Udwin said that after reading the early news accounts of the brutal assault in 2012, she came away believing that the men on the bus were "monsters."

"I expected psychopaths," she told the Beverly Hills audience. "I expected aberrant natures. But here's the terrifying truth: They are not monsters. These are normal human beings with antisocial tendencies. What are their antisocial tendencies? They are the learned attitudes towards women, which society programs them with. So these offenses against women are just part of the story. The story begin when the girl is born and is not welcomed. She is not nourished as much as her brother. And then she is destined to go as some domestic slave to some husband's home. So the disease is not these men. The disease is gender inequality. That is what I learned and that is far more chilling."

At that point, Tina Brown, who was moderating the discussion turned to Dutt, India's top female journalist, and asked, "How does that sound to you?"

"As much as I admire Leslee's advocacy for the cause of gender, I'm disturbed by this generalization of Indian women as somehow subservient, somehow willing to be supplicants, somehow defined only by the men in their lives," Dutt said.

It's because of the early outcry of the women—and young men—in India over the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, Dutt said, that women finally have their "moment of hope."