The 2012 gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi, India, sparked a nationwide outcry against an entire culture’s systemic abuse and dehumanization of women. Delving into the horrific particulars of that case, Leslee Udwin’s hour-long activist documentary “India’s Daughter” makes for grim, infuriating and sadly necessary viewing, its despair tinged with the faintest hope that the protestors’ call for gender equality may yet be reignited. If Udwin’s dramatic reconstruction of events at times veers from sensitive toward sensationalist, her unflinching access to her subjects offers chilling insight into the minds of men who are taught, at an early age, to view women with a matter-of-fact contempt that can escalate all too easily into lethal aggression.
As demonstrated at film’s end by a list of depressing global statistics pertaining to sexual violence against women, these lessons have a painful relevance well beyond India. And while Udwin’s directing debut has been banned from airing in that country, it should continue to stir healthy outrage abroad with its blunt, confrontational treatment of a story that captured significant worldwide attention. Already broadcast extensively in Europe, “India’s Daughter” arrives in the U.S. with endorsements from Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Freida Pinto and, most notably, Meryl Streep (who called for it to win an Oscar), and will receive a limited theatrical release starting Oct. 23 before its Nov. 16 showing on PBS.
Jyoti Singh was returning home from a movie on Dec. 16, 2012, when she and a male friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey (unseen here), boarded a private bus carrying six other men. These men proceeded to beat the two new passengers and sexually assaulted Jyoti, inflicting injuries on her so devastating that she died 13 days later. While hardly the first incident of its kind (it’s noted that a woman in India is raped every 20 minutes, though the vast majority of cases go unreported), this particular crime — in the country’s capital — was sufficiently appalling that it triggered mass protests across India by men and women alike, many of them students like Jyoti. Udwin and editor Anuradha Singh show us on-the-ground footage of the protests throughout, which sparked hope that the most unspeakable horrors might perhaps produce the most meaningful change. But the cruel collective mentality they document here is shown to be as intractable as it is deeply ingrained.
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The director’s most controversial and compelling stroke was her decision to turn the camera on the convicted rapists — particularly Mukesh Singh, who awaits his death by hanging, and who remains firm in his belief that he did nothing wrong. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he declares with a chillingly straight face, more than implying that Jyoti gave up her right to be left alone when she went outdoors at night with a male non-family member. Appallingly, the rapists’ lawyers more than echo that sentiment; one likens women to “flowers” (their purity and beauty must be either protected or trampled), while another speaks favorably of honor killings. Outrageous as these statements may sound, the film assembles a comparatively sane roster of talking heads who ably point out how the oppression of women is rooted in numerous smaller, everyday prejudices, some of which even more enlightened audience members may well recognize in their own lives.
Jyoti’s specific injuries are recounted in excruciating clinical detail; rarely do words and subtitles alone have the power to make the viewer recoil. In the face of such evidence, Udwin chooses her visuals with appreciable care; her subjects’ testimony plays over eerie shots of a bus driving around Delhi at night, with Krsna’s slow drone of a score supplying a pulsing undercurrent of menace. The restraint is welcome, and the impulse behind it understandable: We identify with the everyday normalcy of getting on a bus, unaware that the situation might erupt in unspeakable violence. Still, if there is something naggingly exploitative about how the account is structured, at one point achieving a cheap, dread-fused suspense by crosscutting between the voices of Jyoti’s loved ones and those of her rapists and killers.
Elsewhere, Udwin (whose producing credits include “Who Bombed Birmingham?” and “Sitting Targets”) achieves a more constructive dialectic, pointing out how the victims and the aggressors hailed from two very different sides of contemporary India. At one end are the slums from which Mukesh and his friends arose, and we see in these impoverished surroundings how deeply a lack of means, education and other resources can impinge on a person’s worldview. At the other end are intelligent, progressive-minded young people like Jyoti, who was studying to be a doctor and worked long hours at an international call center to support herself. Her similarly forward-thinking parents, Badri and Asha, supply the film’s most devastating moments as they lovingly remember the daughter who was taken from them — a girl they had raised to believe she could do or become anything she wanted, and whom they embraced with the sort of pride and gratitude traditionally reserved for sons and sons alone.