Leslee Udwin is a film-maker, producer and director of India’s Daughter, a documentary about the case of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, who was gang raped and murdered in Delhi in 2012. The film, part of the BBC’s Storyville series and scheduled to air on channels internationally in March, was banned for broadcast in India. Udwin speaks with reporter and writer Sonia Faleiro, whose most recent work is 13 Men, an investigation into gang rape in India.
Sonia Faleiro: Leslee, congratulations on the success of your film.
Leslee Udwin: Thank you, Sonia, thank you. I’m absolutely thrilled and feel very rewarded that it’s continuing this global conversation about rape, which it was designed to do. Having said that, I take no comfort in how the film’s profile has been amplified by the ban.
SF: When did you hear about the ban?
LU: I was in Delhi at a press screening when someone rushed to tell me. The way they put it, it seemed like I was about to be arrested. I proceeded to phone several lawyers – I have a whole host of lawyers in India, as you can imagine, there are so many sensitivities in the film – and every single one of them said ‘get on the next plane and flee.’ They said, ‘You’re going to be called in for an interrogation and they’re going to take your passport.’ I didn’t take their advice. I just followed my instinct and stuck to my original travel plan, which was to leave about 27 hours later. Apparently half an hour after I’d left [India] the police came looking for me.
SF: What was in the FIR [First Information Report – a criminal complaint filed to the police]?
LU: That the documentary would lead to a disruption in law and order. They were frightened of protests [against rape]. And, to be honest, there should have been protests. I was in complete awe of the ordinary men and women who’d come out on the streets [following the December 2012 Delhi gang rape] demanding autonomy, respect and safety for women. In my lifetime, I hadn’t seen another country do that. And it was the protests that made me make the film, not the rape. Yes, it was a particularly horrific rape full of gruesome details, but who is to say that it was more gruesome than the myriad of rapes that happen in India and across the world? Think of the recent case in Rohtak – nine men pulled a mentally challenged woman into a field and shoved a stick up her vagina. They shoved stones up her anus. Animals fed upon her. It’s beyond what a human heart can cope with.
SF: I know you value your privacy, but to ground us in your life, and give us a sense of what led to the film, would you tell me about childhood?
LU: In spite of what IMDB says, I wasn’t born in Birmingham and I’m also not British. I chose London as my home. I’m Israeli. I’m seventh-generation Israeli/Palestinian, because of course Israel wasn’t formed when generations back my ancestors went there. They were European Jews. From my mother’s side they came from Germany and on her mother’s side they came form Hull in Yorkshire, and my father’s parents escaped from Lithuania’s pogroms to South Africa around the turn of the last century. My earliest memory was that of my mother hurling a shoe at my father that went though the glass pane of the bedroom door and of my sister and I hiding under the bed watching this row. I don’t know what the significance of that is, but it’s my earliest living memory.
SF: Where in Israel were you?
LU: In a little suburb called Savyon where a lot of South African immigrants lived. When I was about nine my father took the family to South Africa and I spent the next ten years of my life there. My parents were religious Jews, and at the age of about thirteen, I rebelled against Judaism. They had sent me to a religious school in Johannesburg and one day I learnt of the morning prayer called Shacharit, which means dawn in Hebrew, in which men say, ‘I thank God that he did not make me a woman.’ Now religion, of course, is riddled with misogyny and negative comments upon and views of women, just as society is. And the moment I discovered that this was a prayer that men said I went to the religious head of the school and told him, ‘This is what I’ve just learnt today, and I want to tell you that you can take your Jewish Torah and stuff it up your arse.’ I was thirteen. He, of course, immediately called for my expulsion and my father had to take me out.
So I do have an enormous amount of anger that I really try and curb, and my husband, who is a wonderful human being, very tolerant and liberal, constantly tells me, ‘You’re too black and white, you should learn understanding.’ And I do try, because there are so many enlightened men, and yet when I sit and watch the news and see soldiers somewhere, I just think, ‘Who the hell are these men to take these decisions about my world?’ and I’m angry that women don’t have representation in decision-making. It’s iniquitous, it’s appalling, and it’s disgusting.
SF: And you trace the anger back to when you were thirteen?
LU: It’s very hard to really know. Oh, there’s another thing that I forgot to mention. Apparently when I was born a mistake was made at the hospital when my father arrived. He was told by one of the nurses that he had had a son. Within the family the apocryphal story was that he was dancing around the ward with joy. And somehow I always felt that I was a disappointment to him for not being a boy. He used to take me to the men’s section of the synagogue with him.
But I just think that I, like 99 per cent of women in the world, feel a personal sense of grievance and injustice. We know when we are being patronised by patriarchal males, we know when we are being devalued, and it happens on a daily basis, everywhere I’ve lived in the world and I feel that injustice keenly and I have every right to feel it. So it’s a conglomerate of those things, and oh, the other thing of course is that I have been raped.
SF: How old were you?
LU: Eighteen or nineteen. I was in my first year of university at a time in my life when I was working so bloody hard. I had to put myself through university because my father refused to pay for me to study drama. He wanted me to be a lawyer and he would have paid for that, so I was teaching at this school I’d graduated from and working at a theatre company around the clock. I had this one weekend when I could relax, and I went with a colleague to a club where we met this youngish man, twenty-six, very personable, nice and great fun, and he invited us to come for a barbecue he was having the following day. My friend didn’t come, I think she had a hangover, but I went and there was no one when I arrived. I remember thinking, ‘This is odd, he said it’s a party, but there are no people here.’ He said, ‘No, no, they’re coming,’ and shortly after that he tried to force himself on me, to kiss me, and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this,’ and he got very aggressive, pulled me into the house and raped me. I remember thinking I was going to die, that he was going to murder me. That was my greatest fear. I told nobody about it.
I was twenty-one when I left South Africa for London. I wanted to become an actress and I did for the first ten years of my career. The very first film I produced was Who Bombed Birmingham, which told the story of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Britain, about six Irishmen wrongly convicted of a crime. And the film directly led to their release. The film had Margaret Thatcher stand up in the House of Commons the morning after the broadcast apoplectic with rage shouting, ‘We will not have trial by television in this country.’ That film changed the world in its small way.
Then I made Sitting Targets for the BBC about my personal experience fighting a psychopath criminal landlord during which I ended up setting a precedent in the High Court of England. I turned my experience into a film because I felt that people should be inspired by the courage that a small band of women, including myself, showed in refusing to be harassed out of their homes. And then I made my first feature film, East is East, which is still used in schools across Europe to teach inter-cultural tolerance.
So I know films change the world, because there is no other medium that is capable of having people sublimate their own selfish concerns and empathize with another human being.
SF: And did your experience inform your approach to the film?
LU: It was on my mind only once – when I was preparing to meet the rapists. It did occur to me that I had a suppressed anger I hadn’t recognised that would interfere with my process. Because, of course, the purpose of interviewing the Delhi rapists was to understand them so we can do something about changing them or about changing potential rapists. So I resolved before meeting the Delhi rapists to interview others, and I interviewed four on film. I wanted to understand how I would react – would I want to hit them? And, because I had never made a documentary, I wanted to learn how to most skillfully elicit information.
SF: Were the four rapists you met Indian, and were they related to this case?
LU: They were Indian, but they weren’t related to the case. The most ghastly one was called Gaurav. He was in his fifth year of a ten-year prison sentence for raping a five-year-old girl. One moment in that interview is the most chilling I have experienced in my entire life: I asked him – he was sitting – how tall she was and he stood up with this weird half smile playing on his face because he was ill at ease in front of the camera, and he put his hand at his knees, considered, shook his head and said, ‘That’s how tall she was.’ And when I said to him, ‘I need you to help me understand something – I can understand that you had this overwhelming desire and that you thought of doing this, what I can’t understand is how you did it when faced with the child.’ And he said, ‘She was a beggar girl. Her life was of no value.’
I remember my daughter at five like it was yesterday. And to listen to him talk, as he went through the rape in absolutely fine detail, and feel literally like my soul had been dipped in tar . . . I knew there was no way to clean the stains. There isn’t a word in the English language to describe the depths of the sadness I felt. There’s a German word – Weltschmerz – and I think it means world-weariness that is deeply rooted, a profound sense of depression at the way things are.
SF: Were you able to maintain your equilibrium through filming?
LU: Not at all. There were a number of times when I went to pieces. One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. bathed in sweat. I later realised I was having a panic attack, so I phoned my husband to say, ‘I’m coming home tomorrow.’ And my daughter, who was thirteen and a half then, answered and immediately said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I tried to lighten my voice, but she said, ‘There’s something wrong.’ And I just broke down and said, ‘It’s too big for me, I thought I could do it but I can’t.’ But she talked me down.
Another time, I’d come home from the first leg of the shoot after interviewing Gaurav and I can’t tell you what it felt like. [Starts to cry.] I went straight to meet my family at a celebration here in Copenhagen. There was speech-making and poetry, there was this urbane civilised society, people smiling and laughing and I smiled and laughed, and at some moment my husband beckoned for me and said, ‘My darling, what can I do, how can I help you with this?’ And I said, ‘I’m fine, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘You’re sitting there with tears streaming down your face.’ And I didn’t know that.
SF: But it was because you came from elsewhere that you were able to capture moments only an outsider would have found noteworthy. For example, while interviewing the family of one of the convicted rapists – the juvenile – you showed us their impoverished circumstances hadn’t changed since he left home at the age of 12. It was a striking indictment.
LU: Remember the juvenile was the one everyone said was the biggest monster of all, which is nonsense. He was carrying out instructions from his ustaad, boss – Ram Singh. You know how the hierarchy works. He had to follow instructions and he did what Ram Singh told him to do. Of course the media likes to sensationalise and deal with stories of monsters. It’s very misleading. In the film, Amod Kanth, the founder of Prayas said something that really stayed with me. He said, ‘The juvenile was a child in need of care and protection.’ That is so insightful. The world failed the juvenile.
SF: Do you agree that being an outsider was an asset?
LU: When you’re a part of a culture you take certain things for granted, and the most compelling and fruitful way of looking at a story is from the outside where you take nothing for granted.
My outside sensibility informed the choices made in the edit, which was a massive labour. I speak very little Hindi, although I understand more than I speak. I had to sit through 87 hours of interviews and I needed translations of all eighty-seven hours. It took months just to get there. I then worked through the translations on paper to cut down the edit to one hour. As an outsider I could see certain statements as significant in a way that an insider may have taken for granted.
SF: Can you give me an example?
LU: I suppose the most obvious example was the almost throwaway statement Asha [the victim’s mother] gave us about her and Badri [the victim’s father] having distributed sweets at the birth of Jyoti. [It is, most often, the birth of a son rather than a daughter that elicits a celebration of which distributing sweets is one symbol. Asha and Badri’s joyful reaction raised eyebrows]. An insider, inured to conventional habits and customs, would probably not have found this detail [the reaction to the celebration] telling. As an outsider, I found it to be hugely metaphoric – emblematic of precisely the kind of thinking that leads girls to be perceived of as lesser value than boys. I saw it as so significant to the insight I gleaned over the course of filming, that I chose it to be one of the opening statements of the film.
SF: Your film has given rise to many stories, and I found the one about Avanindra Pandey – Jyoti’s friend who was with her the night she was raped – to be one of the most disturbing. You said he asked to be paid to be interviewed. He seemed like someone you’d think would want to speak about his friend.
LU: He was one of the very first people we contacted. But he asked for money and I refused to pay. He has taken money from [other] channels and has also been recorded in a sting negotiating a fee for an interview. Finally, I got my co-producer Dibang to call him and say, ‘We’ve been asking for a year, but you need to understand that we’ve got Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus, saying you hid between the seats that night. And we really don’t want that to be the last word on what happened.’
When the film was released, Avanindra came out to the press, called the documentary a fake, and said that I had no clue what had happened that night because he didn’t get the chance to tell his story in the documentary.
SF: Does he need the money to get by – was he compelled to ask for it?
LU: I think it was pure greed. Compare him to the juvenile’s parents who really have no money. But he’s in IT! He wanted money for the longest time. I do know from the police that his sister was honour killed relatively recently. And the last words he spoke to me were, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I’m in trouble, I’m in trouble.’ And that was it. So yes, very sad.
SF: There have been many objections to your film. To some I’ve felt like responding, ‘Why didn’t you make a film of your own?’ Have you felt like saying that at any point?
LU: Yes. Very disappointingly. You know when criticism comes from someone you respect it’s much more hurtful then when it comes from someone you can dismiss as ignorant or unenlightened. And the response from some of the feminists – Kavita Krishnan, Vrinda Grover and Indira Jaising – was the most hurtful of all.
Kavita is someone I interviewed in the film and she’s levelled two charges at me, one that in choosing the title India’s Daughter I was perpetuating patriarchy. I think it’s a particularly pedantic and small-print opinion about semantics, which is not very helpful because it glosses over the reality that Jyoti was the daughter of parents who now suffer unimaginably every single day and still have no closure. There’s nothing dirty about the word daughter.
The other gripe was that I had used [Krishnan] as a ‘prop’ in the film – that was her word. And at that point I did actually say to her, ‘Kavita, you should take two years out of your life and make a film on the women’s movement and your admirable efforts. But this was not that film, and you can’t expect me to be an ambassador for the women’s movement.’ That was not the story I was telling. And quite frankly, the issue is bigger than her, the case, the women’s movement and me. That’s when I thought it’s so easy to simply decry other people’s work. Wasn’t it Madeleine Albright who said there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women? I mean you can hear in my voice how hurt I am, I can’t brush it off. I care.
SF: So tell me why you chose the name India’s Daughter?
LU: Because it was so specific to the case, it was the prism through which I was looking at the issue. Damini, Nirbhaya, and India’s Daughter were all names given to Jyoti by the [Indian] media and the public and because I was aiming the film at a global audience, it seemed to me that Nirbhaya and Damini disqualified themselves because a global audience wouldn’t understand, or even be able to pronounce those names. India’s Daughter stayed.
To me the word daughter conjures up a set of imperatives. I’m the mother to a daughter. I feel the need to protect her in a world that is hostile to her. On an academic level I can understand where they’re coming from in saying that ‘daughter’ is the language of patriarchy, but it’s taking it all too literally, I’m afraid. Just because the film is called India’s Daughter doesn’t mean the film sees Jyoti only as a daughter. Making these tiny points leads people to look in the wrong direction.
SF: This film is such a Rorschach test.
LU: These conversations are a wonderful thing and to some degree that is a measure of how powerful the film is. But on the other hand there is a hell of a lot of time being wasted by sectors highly critical of the film that have not seen the film. How can anybody, particularly India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, take a public position on a film he hasn’t seen? What kind of intelligence is that?
SF: What do you think triggered the hysteria?
LU: I think the same hysteria was meted out to Slumdog Millionaire. Every nation has national pride and India and Britain also have a long history, and that’s led to an instinctive sense [in India] of white people seeing themselves as saviours or being patronising because of colonialism. I can understand where the anger’s coming from, but I was in Delhi for five or six days [before the film was released]. Any politician could have called me in and asked to see the documentary. But no attempt was made to examine the film before making outraged comments. I think that speaks to the wrong kind of impulse – the impulse to hide shame. I don’t think that’s healthy. I don’t think a mature or civilised country should behave like that.
SF: Would people have reacted differently if you were Indian?
I’m sure. There was a documentary made by Indians for [the news channel] CNN–IBN that concluded the police were too quick to rush to judgment in the case. That came and went, because the issue of national pride wasn’t aroused. Narendra Modi himself has been making the most eloquent comments about resetting the moral compass in India. He said, ‘We must hang our heads in shame when we consider rape in our country.’ And here was the perfect opportunity. Here was someone saying, ‘I admire you for bringing this conversation to the forefront by leading anti-rape protests.’ India should have been urging other nations to follow their lead. But what they did was ensure that the world says, ‘You call yourself a democracy but trample on freedom of expression?’
SF: Are you angry at the decision?
LU: I’m deeply disappointed. I’ve so many times in interviews turned my head to the camera and addressed Mr Modi, praying that he would somehow hear my words. I’ve even written him a letter, which he hasn’t acknowledged.
SF: You do know of Mr Modi’s alleged involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots, during which dozens of women were gang raped?
LU: Yes, and have you heard what [a supporter of] one of his friends, an MP for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), said three days ago? The supporter went on record saying that the bodies of Muslim women should be exhumed so that Hindus can rape them. Rape the dead bodies of Muslim women!
SF: So knowing Modi’s history, and hearing supporters of Yogi Adityanath speak, what is going through your mind while making your appeals?
LU: Well, on a pragmatic level Modi is a leader who understands PR. He campaigned in an extraordinary way; there were 3D manifestations of him on the streets. But I think and fear that like other politicians, his words, like his Beti Bachao Beti Padao campaign (Save Daughters, Educate Daughters), are simply words. Because if he meant them he would watch the film and see that it holds up a mirror to all the statements he’s been making. And if he’s sincere, how on earth can he be okay with his Home Minister banning the film?
SF: So perhaps he’s insincere.
LU: Perhaps so. And certainly we know that nationalism is one of the prime motivators of the BJP, and a decision that puts national pride above real issues and real dangers to what should be half its citizens but is less than half because of all the missing women – perhaps that kind of nationalism is rife and is a problem in that party. Time will tell.
SF: Let’s talk about the trailer. Mukesh Singh says, ‘A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night.’ In the film, he says, ‘When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape.’ People responded with outrage that he would say such a thing. But I wondered why they expected better from a man convicted of murder and rape. He’s hardly likely to have enlightened views.
LU: Many politicians in India share his views. Why aren’t we screaming about the platform given to such men? And women, let us not forget Sheila Dixit, Mamata Banerjee. And Sushma Swaraj, who said that were Jyoti to have lived she would have been a living corpse. What kind of comment is that from a woman? And they dare to say that this documentary – which has so much responsible context for what the rapists and the lawyers say, in which so much positive is said about India and those progressive elements that are working for change – is providing a platform for misogynistic views? But what about Parliament providing a platform for misogynist views? What kind of double standards and hypocrisy are we dealing with?
SF: What did you think of Mukesh Singh? You did say he, and the other rapists, were ordinary people, not monsters.
That was the shock. I would have much preferred him to be a psychopath. Because if [rapists] are simply rotten apples in the barrel then those who believe that capital punishment serves a purpose – I don’t happen to be one of them – can wring their hands with relief when such men are hanged and say, ‘That’s a few less rotten apples in our barrel’. But, as the jail psychiatrist so brilliantly put it, these are normal human beings with antisocial tendencies. What are these tendencies? They are learned attitudes towards women. These ordinary people are programmed by a set of cultural values that teaches them to think of women in a particular way and they simply act in accordance with that set of attitudes. So it’s not rotten apples in the barrel it’s the barrel that rots the apples and that is much more chilling.
SF: Did Mukesh ever break down?
LU: Not once. And I tried everything I knew as a performer, as a film-maker. I had the list of injuries read out to him thinking that at least I’d see remorse in his eyes, about the bite marks and bruising, the contusions and the intestines. There’s a flicker, a twitch, but other than that nothing. For the most part all he kept on saying was, ‘Why us? Everybody’s doing it.’
SF: I believe this was one of many rapes the men committed. Do you agree?
LU: Yes. Mukesh did tell us his brother, Ram Singh, had done this before. He told us of his brother’s rape of a hijra. Clearly this is what they were doing with the bus out of hours. It was a school bus and Ram was the official driver and he got permission from the owner to take the bus out on the pretext that his mother was sick and he needed to make extra money, but instead they lured people onto the bus and robbed them. There was a carpenter they had lured onto the bus that night and robbed before Jyoti and Avanindra climbed on and yes, I have no doubt they did this several times before.
SF: Did he show signs of being reformed?
LU: Absolutely none. Mukesh told me stories about how selfish women are. How they only want to use him. His view of women is utterly, depressingly negative. He’s irredeemable. He’s unreformable.
His sister-in-law, who I begged an interview from, told me that at the age of thirteen she was brought from Rajasthan to marry one of the brothers and that every single day her husband beats her in front of their children. And she wept throughout the interview. Now when you see your brother beating his wife, how are you expected to behave? How can you reform somebody who has grown up on that diet?
SF: You interviewed the other rapists as well, am I right?
LU: I interviewed three of the adults and I met with the juvenile and spoke with him for ten minutes. He was in a deep depression. But I interviewed Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Mukesh. Ram Singh, of course, was dead by the time I started filming – he was either murdered or hanged himself in March 2013 – and I started shooting in July 2013. I spent sixteen hours with Mukesh on film, but AP Singh, the lawyer for Akshay Thakur and Vinay Sharma, told me I could only interview them on film for 20 lakh rupees each [about £20,000]. And I said, ‘Out of the question, I won’t pay one rupee for these interviews.’ Vinay and Pawan were still maintaining they weren’t on the bus and there would have been no point really in including that denial. They claimed to have been at a music festival, which was proved not to have existed.
SF: Did they think you’d pay them or were they trying to fob you off?
LU: I think there are many aspects to a gori [a white woman] – as Jaya Bachchan so charmingly calls me – and one aspect is the minute you’re seen they assume you have pots of money and they can benefit from that.
SF: I watched another documentary on rape this afternoon – not a very good one – and it reinforced to me how hard it is to pull off what you did.
LU: Thank you, that means a lot. You know it’s my first documentary ever and it’s the first time I’ve directed, and all I could do was express my curiosity and passion and the pieces fell where they did. I was absolutely determined, from day 1, when I sat in my little office in Copenhagen in January 2013, that my voice should be kept out of this and there should be no dry expert talking about facts and figures.
Now as it turned out there was one person who the BBC insisted on including in the documentary: Dr Maria Misra. My vision was that only the direct participants in the story should be given a voice, but the BBC’s argument was that for an international audience it would be a good idea to have some context. Maria does stand out as being from a different world, she does disturb the purity of the film’s vision, but on the other hand she says immensely insightful and interesting things.
SF: Maria’s presence was widely discussed, but there are other controversies. Let’s talk of the allegations around the interviews conducted in Tihar jail with Mukesh Singh. Jail authorities allege that you showed them a short version of the film, rather than the full version as promised, and that they requested cuts, which you didn’t make. What is your response?
LU: I got permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to interview convicted rapists with their written consent. Then I got permission from the prison itself, which was a mirror of the permissions the MHA had granted. And the only condition was that I should show the raw, unedited footage shot in Tihar to the prison authorities so they could review it for potential breach of prison security. I got signed consent from Mukesh Singh, and I interviewed him only after he was convicted. I complied with the permissions.
After I finished my shoot in Tihar, the jail authorities constituted a five-person committee to review the contents. On the first day they watched every frame shot in Tihar. They commented on a moment in the prison dairy when Vinay turned and spoke to the cameraman, and because he had not signed a consent form they said I couldn’t use that shot. Fair enough. I didn’t. The next day, my editor Vivek returned to Tihar with Mukesh’s interview. The authorities watched possibly up to an hour and said, ‘How much more is there? We can’t possibly sit here. Can you please give us a cut down version.’ When this was conveyed to me, I said ‘No problem, but I can’t give it yet because I haven’t started editing. They have to wait some months for that and as soon as I’m clear, I’ll bring it in.’ And I did, the following June.
Then I was informed that the jail authorities were nervous that the film might end up being negative about the government or of India’s institutions and they wanted to see the finished film and to show it to the MHA and get approval rights, and I said, ‘That’s asking for editorial control and I can’t give it.’ Had they asked for it initially I would have said, ‘I can’t make the film.’ And by this point the prison permissions were cast in stone, and I’d finished shooting. You can’t change the goal posts at this stage!
The Indian Home Minister said in the Lok Sabha that I had to pass on the finished film to the MHA, like it was a condition for the film. But it was simply not.
SF: There have also been allegations made against you by the former Indian co-producer of the film. [She says she can’t speak to the media because she has had a gag order slapped against her.]
LU: They are utterly baseless and nonsensical. Now let me tell you very clearly what happened. This was a woman I brought on board as an equal partner, but whose agreement I then had to terminate because she proceeded to work against the film. Any producer would have sacked her for a tenth of her misdemeanors, and I gave her so many chances. [LU details a series of ethical, contractual and financial breaches of propriety on part of former co-producer, which she says led to co-producer’s contract being terminated. The co-producer is not listed in the film’s credits.]
SF: Hearing her story it’s clear the episode has had a devastating impact professionally, personally. And I wonder if you see that it would be hard not to look at this through a racial lens – as that of a white woman who came into the picture, took control of the story and then kicked out her Indian source.
LU: Well, with very good reason. And the High Court of England, which doesn’t easily grant an anti-suit injunction against any party, granted an injunction against her that had a penal notice attached. Now, I’m sorry but these people should look at the facts. If somebody continually breaches their agreement, they get sacked, full stop, I don’t care who they are, what colour they are, what gender or age they are. And don’t just take it from me, I would say to people who think this is some racially motivated arrogance; the High Court of England is not in my pocket. So let them think what they like. The facts are there. Or is that also a conspiracy by the white courts of England?
SF: Was she paid a salary?
LU: She would have been paid a salary, at a certain point. I wasn’t paid a salary and she and I were equal partners. So at the point at which the BBC money had come in she would have been paid a very small salary, like me. And she would have had half of anything and everything the film made in future.
SF: Let’s talk some more about Jyoti’s parents, Badri and Asha. Tell me about your equation with them.
LU: I was a real pain to them, to be honest. They were used to giving small, seven-to-ten-minute interviews, maybe half an hour interviews to news journalists. They were certainly not prepared for the relentless interviews that I needed for the documentary. There was one Sunday when we arrived at 10 a.m. and left at 10 p.m. And they were exhausted. I think Asha, particularly, lost a bit of patience with me. But I needed them to understand that film is a medium for change, but that is only the case when people’s hearts are engaged. When it goes from the heart to the head people are inspired to take action. I took special care to show them the film.
I even took the step of showing the film to the state prosecution team, to find out if there was something in the film that could jeopardize the case. By that point I’d had opinions from senior high court judges and former Supreme Court judges among others, all of who said it would not affect the men’s appeal in the Supreme Court. I even had a lawyer compare word for word what was in the transcript of my finished film with what was in the court transcript – a big job – and he told me there was only one thing in my film that was new evidence not already on the court record and I removed it. Because I was taking no chances of interfering with the judicial processes.
SF: Mukesh Singh has been sentenced to death by hanging but his case is under appeal. Women’s rights activists have said that following his interview with you the public will want the appeal denied. How would you respond to them?
LU: That’s their point of view and I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t believe in the death penalty, but there is a much bigger issue here than the death penalty. There is a real issue with women being raped and murdered on a daily basis and that is what I want to stop.
SF: On the other hand, you have so many people who have watched the film, stood up for it, and objected to the ban.
LU: I can’t tell you how they have fortified me. I don’t care that people don’t like me saying that I’m giving a gift to India, I don’t give a stuff what people think. I have a right to give people who have given me a gift a gift back: the gift that the enlightened people of India gave me in fighting for women’s rights in such an extraordinary way. And if they interpret that as patronising well that’s their problem, not mine. . .
The other thing they charged me with is being interested in commerce. If I were interested in commerce I would have tried to make a feature film out of this. I know what successful films are because I made one – East is East made an enormous amount of money and won thirty-six awards worldwide. I know what fame and fortune is, and you don’t make a documentary if you’re interested in commerce. I’m still carrying a debt – I’ve borrowed money from my mother, from friends, and it’s not comfortable for me.
SF: But the idea that social consciousness and desire for financial security can’t go hand in hand is ridiculous to me.
LU: It is ridiculous. But the fact is that in this particular instance there isn’t even the prospect of commercial success. Broadcasters pay peanuts for documentaries. It’s a joke what they pay. At this time six countries have shown this film, and the only broadcaster who has paid me, and not even fully, is the BBC.
SF: Will you make a film like this ever again?
LU: I don’t think so. I don’t think I can. I’m fifty-seven. There’s a limit to my energy, apart from anything else. I do have a feature film lined up. But what I want to do is to go country by country and meet with the education ministers to persuade them to co-opt the formal curriculum gender respect and gender sensitization classes from the earliest grade at school. And if I manage to achieve that as much as possible, then I’ll feel my time on earth has been worthwhile. Because I think the only purpose you can ascribe to your life is to leave the world a better place than you entered it in, especially if you have children.
SF: So are you perfectly happy with how India’s Daughter turned out?
LU: I know so much more about Jyoti than the film is able to express. And I’ll never be satisfied with the film, because it doesn’t feature her very close friend who gave me the most inspiring and moving interview I had. But the woman’s father and brothers forbade her to speak to me on camera. The things she told me about Jyoti were extraordinary.
You know the supreme irony is that Jyoti was someone who fought so hard against reductive thinking that said women are of lesser value than men. If someone stared at her on the streets she would stop, look them in the eyeballs and say, ‘I’m not your property, what gives you the right to look at me like that?’ There was an incident in a rickshaw. She and her friend were on, and a boy touched her friend’s leg and she whispered to Jyoti to tell her what had happened. And Jyoti stopped the rickshaw, ordered these two boys off and screamed at them, saying, ‘How dare you show such a lack of respect for women. Get off now.’ She was someone who confronted men all the time. And as a result she fought tooth and nail on that bus. The supreme tragedy of someone who tried to change attitudes, and it was those same attitudes that took her life.
SF: Why did her parents stop the friend from talking to you?
LU: Reading between the lines, it seemed to me that since she was twenty-three and of marriageable age the sense of shame that adheres so utterly unjustly to rape victims in India and in certain other cultures [got in the way]. Her parents probably thought that the association with a close friend who had been raped and murdered would somehow be undesirable as they marketed their daughter for marriage. That’s what I believe, given my conversation with her several times, and then once with her brother.
SF: What encouragement would you give film-makers, or even reporters and writers who want to produce something similar – because clearly, it can do a number on you.
LU: I would say to them. [Starts to cry.] Sorry, I’m suddenly very moved by this. What I would say to them is that if they have those impulses then they are very rare, because most people are silent and apathetic. And if they have those impulses they have an absolute duty to go ahead and make those films and write those articles. They are carrying that torch for humankind. And if they don’t do it – given that they feel that passion, they are blessed with it, because most people don’t push themselves out of their comfort zone – then who will? They have to. Of course it’s painful. Of course it’s a really horrendous journey. And the fact that I occasionally break down, like I am doing now, means that I haven’t processed it fully. You don’t sit in front of those people hearing and understanding that you and your society are in part responsible for their actions, and manage to process it and live with it. But what keeps me going is this optimism that things are happening, and things are changing.
Video and image courtesy of Leslee Udwin