1. Looking back, what were your expectations from India’s Daughter before it was released?And when it was released, and subsequently banned in India, what did you expect to happen next?
I was very clear from the outset that this was to be a campaigning film, a film that called for change in the spirit of the call for change of the Indian men and women who had protested with such courage and commitment in response to Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder. So my expectation and indeed hope was that the film would help transform individuals and amplify the conversation about the urgent and I believe rather neglected issue of violence against women and girls. When it was released, my expectation was that the 7 countries who had been persuaded to broadcast the film simultaneously on International Women’s Day would inspire other countries to join hands over this global issue which affects every country in the world. The ban of course cut across any such possibly and hijacked the attention, while also increasing the appetite of people across the world to see the film. After the ban, I genuinely expected that the enlightened Indians who had displayed so much fervor for justice, safety, freedom and truth in the protests, would protest the ban and demand that the government lift it. Here I was deeply disappointed. Not only has there been a complete cloak of silence about the ban, and an apathy even in the face of it being o clear that the ban brings shame on India and is a blot and a stain on the spirit of the protests, but I even discovered that certain so-called feminists in India had called for the ban. It will be a very long time before I recover from that sense of betrayal.
2. How did you come about the name of the film? Is it a way of projectingJyoti Singhas a representative of India’s daughters? Or is it a way of envisioning her as a martyr for the Indian women, the redeeming spirit?
In fact I came about naming the film “India’s Daughter” in the most mundane and simple way. I wanted the film to be a tribute to her and having her present in the title was one further way of doing that. It wasn’t open to me to call her by her real name without changing the title for the Indian version, so I had to choose between the 3 pseudonyms the Indian media had given her: “Damini”, “Nirbhaya” and “India’s Daughter”. Since the film was always to be a global campaigning film aimed at global audiences, the English name was the most obvious one to go with. The word ‘daughter’ has caused much hysteria amongst the so-called ‘feminists’, which I find simply pathetic. They didn’t utter one word of criticism (at least not vociferously so) at the Media calling her “Inida’s Daughter”, nor raise a word against an Indian filmmaker who made a film called “Daughters of Mother India”… But their scorn was reserved for a ‘gorri’. This is pretty see –through discrimination as to their selective hearing. Also I do wish they wouldn’t spend time and energy on semantics and distracting from the issue when the issue is so pressing and of such monstrous propertions.
3. You are well known for India’s Daughter but the two feature films you did, East is East and West is West, shows your unwavering commitment to the Indian subcontinent, serving as a bridge between the East and the West. From where does this inspiration come from? Were there specific books or writers who had inspired you? What kind of relationship do you think East and West shares, and how can this be improved?
Strangely enough I see this as pure ‘coincidence’. I consider myself to be a global citizen and will make films about whatever story and issue gives me ‘fire in he belly’. In the case of East is East, it was a film set in the UK even though it’s main character was of Pakistani origin. I recognized my Jewish South African father in George Khan and that’s partly why I felt so passionately about that particular story and why I also knew it would have international appeal, which it certainly did. West is West was set in Pakistan, though filmed in India. This wasn’t so much a ‘choice’, as the dictates of the sequel to East is East. Therefore the ‘South Asian’ theme simply followed from making a sequel. And as far as India’s Daughter is concerned, it’s simply a product of the fact (coincidence if you like) that the only mass mobilization in the world that ahs come out so strongly in favour of women’s rights and against violence against women, happened to take place in India in response to this particular case. If these protests had taken place in any other country and in response to any other case, then I would have gone to that country and made the film there. It was the protests that put the fire in my belly and motivated o me the film, not the case.
4. From Sister Nivedita to Mother Teresa, and Wendy Doniger to Jean Dreze there have several westerners who have cared for India and contributed to a better understanding of our own society and culture. But as you know, they have had their share of criticism. In your experience, how would you say India treated you? Did it ever make you feel like an outsider?
Oh yes. I feel really ‘dumped’ by surprising sections of India. Even some of my very close friends there have not written a single word of support to me since the banning. This hurts deeply. I can never understand the sort of ‘nationalism’ that leads people to be so selfish as to put the image of their country a love if humanity as a whole. It’s deeply disappointing to me.
5. In an interview to a private TV channel Mahesh Sharma, the Union Culture Minister, made the controversial comment, “Girls wanting a night out may be all right elsewhere but it is not part of Indian culture”. This was picked up by social media activists and circulated around the social media along with a quotation (“A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’ clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy”) from one of the convicted rapists from your documentary. This sadly revealed how the mentality of a rapist strikes a common chord with a large section of the society, as echoed by the culture minister’s remark.
How deep-seated do you think this sentiment is? And how particular is it to India? Of course it’s deep-seated. Who do we think taught Mukesh and all rapists how to think? Their parents, their friends, their relatives. They are a product of your society just as everyone, everywhere is a product of their social thinking. This is why this culture minister is just as likely to rape as Mukesh is. THAT is why society needs to accept: that IT is responsible for the way women are treated and violated. It should stop its pathetic attempts to distance itself from these rapists and take RESPONSIBILTY for them.
6. There was outrage from some groups when your film came out, demanding the sacking of Manohar Lal Sharma, the lawyer who was fighting for the rapist in an attempt to save his “clients”. While it is beyond question that we need to ensure justice in cases of atrocities against women, children or for that matter against men, do you feel that we as a society are becoming glowingly intolerant in general, seeking easy solutions to complex issues?
Yes, undoubtedly so. “Hang the rapists” would appear to be one more such example. Hanging the rapists in this or any other case, and sacking ML Sharma will make not a jot of difference to the ongoing violations of women and girls across the world. We need to be mature enough to understand, that this is not a case of “rotten apples in the barrel” but that the barrel itself is rotten. We need to be big enough to own up to the fact that we are failing to tackle the root cause, but merely being reactive to the fallout of the symptoms, and so the cycle of violence simply goes round and round. We have to RE-EDUCATE our children and programme them to value human beings of all genders, races, religions. Until then, we will continue in a world of deepening moral crisis. And we deserve what we get! – while we resist the truth, remain silent, ban films like India’s Daughter, allow this vile prejudice to continue unopposed.
7. I like the way the documentary goes beyond pinning judgment on particular individuals but holds the lack of education responsible for a rapist mindset. But do you think there is something more to this “rape culture”, if I may, than education or the lack of it?
What underpins rape culture is MINDSET. The mindset of gender inequality, the mindset of patriarchy which creates and maintains inequality so it can continue to benefit and hold the reins of power. This is what causes rape. Rape culture is part of that mindset and rape is a symptom of it. And the education that’s required to cure the disease and transform the mindset is a very targeted and specific kind of education. It is not ‘education’ as we know it. It is not about ‘access to education’, it is about a new subject that is not yet on the national curriculum. We need to teach each and every child the value of each and every human being regardless of gender, race, religion, caste… we need to teach children empathy (the essential foundation of humanism) and respect and compassion. Until we as a world take responsibility for the fact that we create these rapists and encourage rape culture by teaching boys from the day they’re born that they are superior or entitled or somehow of more value than girl children, this cycle of violence will continue.
8. Do you think India’s Daughter would have turned out to be a different film, had you managed to convince Awindra Pandey,Jyoti’sgood friend and companion, to come on board with your project and share his first hand experience of the horrible incident?
No. The insights the film valuably gives us are not to do with details which Awnindra could have filled in for us of what happened on that bus. We know what happened on the bus – Mukesh tells us exactly the same as Awnindra told the court about what Ram Singh first said to Awnindra and Jyoti, and what then transpired on that bus. The only place the account differs is as to what Awnindra himself did on the bus – Mukesh says he hid between the seats, Awnindra says he fought valiantly. And what Awnindra did or didn’t do in response to the attack on him or the brutal gang-rape of his friend, is about Awnindra, not about the issue. To that degree it’s not material to the film. I wish we’d had Awnindra’s point of view more in terms of enlightening us as to who Jyoti was, and so her hopes and aspirations etc. One of the important objectives of the film was to be a tribute to Jyoti and have us realize who we’ve lost through this hate-fuelled and heinous crime, to prevent her from being just another statistic on the mountain of rapes. But Awnindra’s valuable contribution in that respect was not to be, sadly, because he wanted to be paid for his interview and we couldn’t, wouldn’t, pay for any interview in the film – it would have been immoral. And the other possibility of achieving this, through her close female friends, was also cut off at the root, because the only friend who agreed to be interviewed was then forbidden to come on camera by her brother and father. I believe the reason for this was utterly ignoble – the patriarchs did not want her associated with the subject of rape, and so stopped her from paying tribute to her close friend and expressing her love for, and loss of, her.
9. Now let us come to some of the criticisms that your film faced.
i) In an interview to CNN IBN Awindra declared, “The documentary is unbalanced as the victim’s viewpoint is missing. The facts are hidden and the content is fake. Only Jyoti and I know what happened on that night and the documentary is far from truth“. How do you respond to his accusations?
I say Awnindra should have thought more about contributing that truth to the documentary, without self-interest and greed, for the sake of truth and change. He calls the documentary fake because he says Satendra Prasad is an ‘actor’. He makes this ridiculous claim on the basis that he didn’t know him as Jyoti’s friend and tutor. Well, that is laughable and obviously untrue. Satendra is closer to the family than Awnindra ever was, he has been a close part of the family, a neighbor and mentor for Jyoti and her brothers, for many years, and he is one of the purest human beings I have ever met.
ii) There are also people who thought that in making Jyoti a larger than life personality, one who elicits sympathy, anger and the desire to bring about a positive change, the film reduced her to an idol to be admired and worshipped. This belief, it seems, stems even if partially from Jyoti’s tutor friend Satendra’s various anecdotes from the film, where he goes on to elaborate on her charity and virtuous character.
There is so much more about her, all in the same vein…that I was unable to include from her friends for reasons already mentioned. She WAS an exemplary young woman… She fought the restrictions and dictates of patriarchal society courageously in everything she did. I heard so many stories about this (which I couldn’t include) – eg if a man stared at her in the street, she’d stop and stare him back and say: “what are you looking at? I’m not your property”. Once, she and her friend were in a Vikram rickshaw and a young man touched her friend inappropriately and whispered this to Jyoti. She made the driver stop, ordered the young man off the Vikram rickshaw and berated him in no uncertain terms. She WAS a sort of idol! Why resist that?
10. From your research on her and the filming that followed, what’s your own understanding of Jyoti Singh as a person?
Remarkable, determined, ambitious, fearless, courageous, tireless in her pursuit of her dream to make the world a better place and pull her family out of poverty, a new thinker… loving, caring, the respected centre of her family, the one everyone looked to for advice. She would undoubtedly have made a massive contribution to society had her life not been so brutally snatched away by the skewed mentality of the society she fought so hard to change.
11. Beyond India’s Daughter, where do you see yourself, doing what? And where do you want to see India and its daughters?
I am working day and night now on the solution to the problem the film lays bare. I am spearheading a global human rights education initiative – Think Equal (the Equality Studies Global Initiative) on which I am working with the UN Human Rights office. The objective is to bring social emotional learning, education in values, respect, equality, diversity, and empathy to the world’s children as a mandatory part of what they learn from the earliest age at school. We have been focused as a world on educating our children’s heads, and have irresponsibly neglected the education of their hearts. And we are reaping the costs of that grievous oversight. We must address this with a system change in education now. As for India’s daughters, and its sons, I wish for the progress Dr Ambedkar was so wise and eloquent about when he said: “we will measure the progress of our society by the progress of our women”. I wish that all the people of India, and of the world, recognise that the time has come to do away with outmoded, obsolete and archaic patriarchy which has no place in the modern world. I wish people all around the globe would stop dealing only with the symptoms of the disease (gender inequality) and work on rooting out the cause. I wish the enlightened forward-thinking sections of Indian society who came out onto the streets for over a month, in protest against this gang-rape and rape culture generally, would not relegate those exemplary protests to a glimmer of light now extinguished, but will rekindle that momentous cry of civil society for a safe, free and equal world for women. Not just in India, but the world over.