Protesting horrific human ugliness through art.
Image from Flickr user Ramesh Lalwani.
By Kavita Das
The gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi, India in December 2012 triggered a wave of activism and seeded societal changes. It also, like tragedies before, inspired art. This spring, I watched two films, attended a play, and viewed a digital comic over a three-month span. Each was catalyzed by the same event, but their perspective and approach to the somber subject varied.
First was Leslee Udwin’s BBC film, India’s Daughter, which I saw amidst the maelstrom of controversy that surrounded it and its director in early March. I was struck by how many people were decrying the film without having seen it, primarily because it portrays India negatively and because Udwin is not an Indian. Debates raged within the Indian government and amongst the public, and on March 4th, just four days before its planned worldwide release set to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th, the Indian government banned the film from theaters in India, citing concerns that it might incite violence and because it featured damning interviews with one of the rapists, who had a pending appeal before the court. The government of India, the most populous democracy in the world, went even farther, banning the film online in India through Youtube and on the BBC web site.
I managed to stream the film online during the narrow window of time while it was still available on an Indian culture site—and I wasn’t alone. In some ways, the ban had the opposite effect, with many Indians both in India and in the diaspora seeking out and watching the film online. Ultimately, a film with India as its focus was screened and broadcast in cities outside India, including London, New York, and Chicago.
Puneeta Devi, wife of rapist Akshay Thakur, wonders why, in all of this, no one seems to care about her welfare.
India’s Daughter reveals many ugly truths about gender and sexual violence in India, but, importantly, these truths do not come from foreigners. Rather, they are spoken by those central to the atrocity. Udwin talks to Mukesh Singh, one of Jyoti’s rapists, who not only shows no remorse for his heinous actions, but expounds on how women who are raped are just as culpable as their male rapists. “You can’t clap with one hand – it takes two hands… a decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night; A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” Here, Udwin complicates the narrative by showing the destitution in which the rapists were raised and now live. Puneeta Devi, wife of rapist Akshay Thakur, wonders why, in all of this, no one seems to care about her welfare. “Am I not a daughter of this country? Don’t I have a right to live?”
While it’s hard to stomach Mukesh Singh’s lack of remorse and views on rape and women’s role in Indian society, it’s even more shocking to hear similar views from the rapists’ attorneys. The film shows a TV broadcast where a lawyer threatens: “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital 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.” Comments by these attorneys cross far beyond creating a convincing argument into victim-blaming, underscoring that education is not necessarily a cure for such deeply entrenched societal views.
Jyoti Singh became a symbol to girls and women all over India standing up to sexual violence, but first, she was the daughter of Asha and Badri Singh, who tell Udwin of the joy Jyoti brought them. “Were were given a gift of light and happiness when she was born,” Asha says. Badri speaks of the pride they felt at their daughter’s promising future as a medical student: “Happiness was a few steps ahead.” They discuss the devastation of her death, but also what her life has come to mean to them and to others. In the film’s closing, her father describes how Jyoti challenged Indian society’s views on gender by posing the question, “What is the meaning of ‘a woman?’ How is she looked on by society today?” Udwin is unflinching in also depicting their outrage at not only the brutal death of their daughter but at the delay in getting justice. While the four adult rapists were convicted and sentenced to death in September 2013, the case has been languishing in a final appeal to the Indian Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the juvenile rapist was sentenced to only three years in prison and is due to be released in December 2015.
India’s Daughter emphasizes not only how threatening sexual violence is against girls and women in India, but also how it’s connected to deeply entrenched and pervasive views on women’s role in society. Meanwhile, the banning of the film set off debates about the curtailing of freedom of speech, from the floor of the Indian Parliament to the pages and broadcasts of Indian and international outlets, including OpIndia, Firstpost, NDTV, The Hindu, Al Jazeera America, and Poynter. Ultimately, those who vehemently opposed the ban—some of whom expressed concerns about the film and how it was made—wondered how India could meaningfully address sexual violence while silencing the very voices speaking about it?
Delhi Police Department is assigning more women officers to the domestic and sexual violence hotline, and conducting sensitivity trainings for the city’s largely male police force.
On May 5th, two months later, I watched Vibha Bhakshi’s Daughters of Mother India at the 2015 New York Indian Film Festival. Like India’s Daughter, this film uses the brutal rape of Jyoti Singh as the starting point. However, it has a decidedly different perspective: it focuses on the positive changes wrought in the wake of this tragedy. It opens with a narration about Jyoti Singh’s case, however Bakshi doesn’t talk to anyone involved directly in that case. Instead, the film quickly turns to highlight the weeks of protests by hundreds of thousands of people in Delhi, especially youth, which were sparked by this case. The film goes on to focus on the changes that were created in the legal and law enforcement systems due to this case and the resulting social movement. Changes have been made to the legal definition of rape and sexual assault and new rape laws were drafted and passed. Then Bakshi takes us into the Delhi Police Department, which is assigning more women officers to the domestic and sexual violence hotline, and conducting sensitivity trainings for the city’s largely male police force. Daughters of Mother India also depicts how art activists are using street theater to create awareness and change minds about sexual violence against women and how educators are making children aware of sexual abuse.
In Bakshi’s film, it’s as if everyone wants and is engaged in change, from the youth, to the government, to the police. And yet, we know that cultural change comes slowly and not without resistance, and given India’s deep and diverse cultural history, it might come even more slowly.
Daughters of Mother India’s focus on the positive changes that have transpired since Jyoti’s death is neither subtle nor tempered, and not surprisingly, it has garnered a positive response in India and within the Indian government. At the 2015 National Film Awards, which is overseen by the Indian Government’s Directorate of Film Festivals, Daughters of Mother India nabbed the National Film Award for Best Film on Social Issues. Beyond accolades, following the film’s premiere in Mumbai, the director of the National Police Academy issued an internal memo urging that the film be seen by the entire force as part of their sensitivity training on gender violence, demonstrating that the film both focuses on positive change, and seeks to be a tool for that change.
The very next day, on May 6th, I attended Yael Farber’s riveting play, Nirbhaya. The play has shown in Mumbai, Edinburgh, and Dublin, and its title, which means, “one who is not afraid,” refers to the name Jyoti came to be called by the media and public when her identity was still unknown. The cast features six female actors and one male actor, who not only powerfully portray Jyoti’s brutal rape and its aftermath but also deftly weave in their own traumatic stories of gender violence. It is part theater, and part confessional, but it is entirely engrossing, and deeply affecting.
Jyoti’s story is at once singularly horrific and tragically universal.
I was stunned by the courage of the five actresses who share their own experiences of sexual trauma and gender violence. Sneha Jawale was severely beaten and burned by her husband, who then absconded with their young son. Weeping on stage, she says to the son lost to her, “I search for you in the stars and in the face of every stranger.” Meanwhile, Priyanka Bhose, who endured repeated sexual molestation during her childhood, says with disgust, “like half the children in our country, we spent our childhoods cleaning other people’s scents from ourselves,” speaking both of her own trauma as well as the sad pervasiveness of childhood sexual abuse. I marveled at how these women relive their traumas night after night on stage, turning their pain into art. And while Nirbhaya does not take a position or inform you of what has changed and what has not, you leave understanding that Jyoti’s story is at once singularly horrific and tragically universal.
The next day, on May 7th, Priya’s Shakti, an exhibit featuring an augmented comic book experience opened at City Lore Gallery in New York City as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival. Priya’s Shakti is the brainchild of filmmaker Ram Devineni, and uniquely combines Hindu mythology, comic book storytelling, and digital technology to address sexual violence in India. Drawn by comic book artist Dan Goldman, it portrays Priya, a young Dalit woman who is raped and finds no support within her family and community. In desperation, she invokes Hindu Goddess Parvati for solace and strength. Priya’s mythical story is powerful, but so are the real stories of Indian women who have survived sexual violence, which Devineni and his creative partners have woven into the exhibit. Each woman and their story have been rendered in comic book form to protect their identity and to integrate their story into Priya’s narrative, as well as the broader narrative of sexual violence.
As a child, I devoured Amar Chitra Kathas, Indian comic books; however, their portrayal of women was often problematic, ideologically as well as visually. Given that Amar Chitra Kathas did not address rape, let alone sex, I was encouraged to see Priya’s Shakti‘s take on sexual violence. The use of cutting-edge mobile and digital technologies in the comic book and related exhibit, along with the bold yet nuanced treatment of sexual violence, makes Priya’s Shakti a model for the future of Indian comic books.
Both films, Daughters of Mother India and India’s Daughter, are important, informative and shaped by their respective focus on how much has changed and how much has not in terms of sexual violence in India. And in a democracy, both deserve to be seen because of their opposing perspectives, rather than despite them. Meanwhile, Nirbhaya and Priya’s Shakti differ greatly in medium, yet their power and poignancy lie in how they hold up the voices, not just the stories, of sexual violence survivors.
Jyoti Singh’s rape and death was horrifying, inspiring new laws, activism, and diverse works of art that follow a long tradition of art that seeks to reflect society, not only in all its beauty, but also in all its barbarity. It is arts activism, which seeks to goad society towards what it ideally could be. As unspeakable as this was, it would have been made that much more tragic, had it been followed by silence.
Kavita Das worked in the social change sector for 15 years on issues ranging from homelessness to health disparities, and most recently, racial justice. She is now a freelance writer focusing on social change, culture, feminism, and their intersection, and is working on a biography about Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar, to be published by Harper Collins India. Kavita lives in New York City with her husband and their beloved hound, Gavin.