In late December 2012, 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh was beaten and gang-raped by six men aboard a moving bus in New Dehli, eventually succumbing from her injuries two days later. The incident shook the conscience of a nation, sparking widespread protests across India and a broader conversation about public safety and a culture that foments vicious misogyny. Last year, the acclaimed documentary “India’s Daughter” offered a comprehensive overview of the assault and its aftermath, and now Deepa Mehta’s semi-experimental feature “Anatomy of Violence” imagines scenes that weren’t part of the public record. Using improvisational techniques, Mehta dramatizes the backstories of the rapists and their victim, but 96 minutes isn’t nearly long enough to place the crime in a credible social context. Despite a heightened awareness of rape culture and its tragic consequences, her catastrophically misjudged film will struggle to add to the discussion.
Sacrificing the visual splendor of her Elements trilogy (“Fire,” “Earth,” “Water”) and her Salman Rushdie adaptation, “Midnight’s Children,” for a more urgent, stripped-down aesthetic, Mehta and her cast set about imagining the unimaginable. Without forgiving the men for the crimes (the narrator often throws in a derogatory noun to describe them), “Anatomy of Violence” strongly indicts the system that breeds them, rooting their actions in poverty, ignorance, and masculine abuse. Mehta has made a thoughtful, responsible, empathetic statement that carefully tiptoes around the cavernous pitfalls of moral relativism. A statement, however, is not easily dramatized.
Broken down into four chapters that detail the past (“Lives Lived”), the day of the rape (“Towards Zero”), the immediate consequences (“Division of Spoils”), and the coda (“Aftermath”), “Anatomy of Violence” gets better as it goes along, but it starts at a low place. Harnessing their performances from an improvisatory workshop, Mehta’s actors, who share screenplay credit, also play themselves as children, which is the first and biggest of the film’s mistakes. The spectacle of five twentysomething men, four of them with beards, cowering and crying like little children is a distraction that takes away from the domestic violence that defines their upbringing. (The narrator also has to inform the audience, repeatedly, of a character’s age, because there would be no other way to tell.)
Mehta dutifully stages scenes from the lives of all five men — the sixth rapist, the bus driver, does not get a backstory — but she doesn’t have nearly enough time to sketch their particulars. From early childhood to young adulthood, their stories coalesce into a harmony of horror: Extreme poverty, a lack of education, petty criminality, and abusive fathers, for starters, along with indicators of misogyny, violence, and sexual deviance. Without absolving these men, Mehta makes a sincere, if regrettably crude, effort to address the social ills that account for their behavior.
Mehta also wants the humanity of the victim acknowledged, too, so the film devotes time to the luminous Janki (Janki Bisht), whose personal and professional ambitions were tragically cut short. “I’m proud to be a girl in India,” Janki says at one point, an indicator of how much the film embraces her image as a martyred avatar of the country’s progressive hopes. As if to preserve that image, Mehta ends Janki’s scenes with a freeze-frame on her face, a stylistic tic that’s meant to capture a fleeting moment out of time.
“Anatomy of Violence” improves once it gets to the fateful day itself, though the crosscutting between a blissful Janki on a date and the busload of boozing, womanizing louts destined to pick her up edges into emotional manipulation. Mehta does have a strong sense of the group dynamic among these men, who goad each other into committing an atrocity, and she’s perceptive about how the moral gravity of what they’ve done doesn’t register. Given the insensitive statements from some public officials in the aftermath, they had no reason to believe they were in the wrong.
At a certain point, Mehta’s documentary style catches up with real broadcast footage, but not enough to justify the point-and-shoot carelessness that flattens the film’s visual and dramatic texture. “Anatomy of Violence” does what its title promises, but the bones of Mehta’s argument are missing the flesh and blood of real humanity. It’s only persuasive in the abstract.