Candle-lit vigils were held throughout India to mourn the death of Jyoti Singh
Candle-lit vigils were held throughout India to mourn the death of Jyoti Singh

It should go without saying that documentary filmmakers put their hearts and souls into their films, but the gender-equality activism at the core of Leslee Udwin’s new film, India’s Daughter, became the central cause in her life, especially when the Indian government banned the film in the country it sought to change.

The film, which premieres tonight, Monday November 16 at 10pm on Independent Lens [check local listings], will be seen in the United States while demonstrations mount abroad in support of rape survivors.

Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times called India’s Daughter‘s impact “devastating… Udwin has shed a disturbing light on the chauvinistic, patriarchal mind-set that is the soil in which horrific acts are allowed to grow. The interviews she obtained with one of the convicted men and one of the defense attorneys are, for Western audiences at least, jaw-dropping.”

In the midst of an incredibly exhausting travel schedule, in which she basically barnstormed  across the United States and Europe for her film and about this issue, Udwin managed to squeeze in time to talk to us about India’s Daughter, including addressing its ban in India and how making this film changed her life.

Why did you want to make this film?

This particularly brutal gang-rape and the horrifying tragic details of what had befallen an aspirational young woman so brutally discarded and destroyed by a mindset she worked hard to change, certainly captured all our attention across the world in December 2012. It was not the rape itself, though, which motivated me to make this film – rather it was the response to the rape.  Unprecedented numbers of ordinary citizens, men and women of India, poured out onto the streets to express profound pain and anger at the relentless frequency with which offenses against women abound in their society. I was inspired by their courage and tenacity. They went on and on protesting for over a month across India’s cities.

I was of course also motivated by a need to understand why men rape and why violent rape happens with relentless regularity. I was determined to interview the rapists in this case, and others, in order to understand their mindsets. If we don’t understand them, how can we hope to change them?

You faced a lot of challenges in making India’s Daughter. What were some of the strongest?

Looking into the darkest recesses of the human heart (interviewing rapists in prison for 31 hours over seven days, one of whom raped a five-year-old girl). And realizing the degree to which the underlying cause of offenses against women is society itself and the way a cultural mindset programs these rapists. The psychological and emotional challenges were the greatest.

India's Daughter filmmaker Leslee Udwin
India’s Daughter filmmaker Leslee Udwin

Was there anything you had to cut from the film that you wish you hadn’t?

A startling piece of new evidence yielded by one of the interviews with the rapists. I could not include this as it would have been irresponsible and potentially prejudicial to the case (which is still in process in the Supreme Court of India) to do so. Also two crucial interviews. In the case of one of these, I was asked for money which it would not have been morally correct to pay to the subject. In the other case, the young girl’s father and brother forbade her to go on camera (the oppressive sway of patriarchal society in action) presumably because just being identified as the best friend of a rape victim carries the stigma of “shame” and “dishonor” in Indian society.

And I didn’t get to show a picture of the rape victim – it is illegal to do so in India and her parents also refused to let me. Having an image of her in the film would have been invaluable.

Could you talk a little bit about how the film came to be banned in India, and the latest updates you have on that situation?

I was attending an influencer and PR screening in Delhi on the night of the third of March 2015. A young journalist rushed up to me and showed me a text message on her mobile phone. She said, “Your film has been banned and there’s a warrant out for your arrest. You should leave India immediately.” I did not.

The first I heard of the rationale for the ban was in the form of an email sent to me by the PR officer of police, Mr. Rajan Bhagat. He outlined for me the reason the police had put before the magistrate in order to get the film banned. It mentioned various sections under the Indian penal code, and argued that the film was likely to lead to “a disruption in law and order.”

The next morning, as I watched open-mouthed the televised proceedings in the Indian parliament, I got a glimpse of what the more likely reasons for the ban were. A large number of MPs were shouting that this foreigner (me) was going to decimate their tourist industry, that I was guilty of conspiracy to shame India. I later discovered, to my shock and horror, that a group of prominent feminists in India had actually called for the ban. Unbelievable but true.

A petition has been brought by a journalist and an activist to the Delhi High Court challenging the ban as undemocratic and unconstitutional. The case has been adjourned three times now, for various reasons; the adjournment was granted to the defendants (the government and police) on the basis that they had not yet prepared their counter-pleading. The next case is to be heard on December 9.

It is interesting to note that some six weeks ago an Indian member of Parliament was caught watching porn during parliamentary proceedings in the house of Parliament. In response to this embarrassment, the Indian government banned 897 pornography sites. There was such an outcry from Indian men over the next week, that they had a right to view what they wanted to view in the privacy of their own homes, and that the ban was undemocratic. The Indian government lifted the ban on the porn sites. The ban on the film remains.

I ask myself everyday what message this is sending to the world? Pornography, which plays large part in the violation of the rights of women and girls, is allowed. A film which pleads for a safe, free, and equal world for women and girls, is not.

Are you in touch with some of the activists we see in the film?  

I am closely in touch with many activists who have been born as a result of the advent of the film. One of my heroes in this regard is Ketan Dixit, who took it upon himself to show the film to the semi-slum colony in which four of the rapists had lived, and to a group of people in a village outside Agra, on a sheet which had been strung up to project the film onto, and was arrested for doing so. There is not one screening I have been present at, and there have been hundreds by now, which has not birthed at least one if not more activists. And I’m not only in touch with them, but working with them to make the world a better place for women and girls.

So what do you think potential activists in other countries, in Western countries, can take from the film as far as fighting to achieve lasting change?

What I think activists around the world should take from this film is the certain knowledge that the disease which is responsible for violations of human rights across gender lines (which are the symptoms of the disease) is the mindset of gender inequality. And that while they so valiantly and courageously struggle to deal with the fallout, to be reactive to the symptoms, it is absolutely imperative that urgent efforts are made to surgically remove the root cause. To change the mindset. And this can only be done by educating the next generation to become advocates of human rights, whose hearts are educated, [that they] are taught from the earliest age respect, empathy, moral values, and the value of each and every human being.

What new projects are you working on or hoping to work on next?

I have left filmmaking (at least for the immediate future) as I have now become a human rights champion. The journey making the film, having yielded the most blindingly clear insights and perspective on what leads men to commit violence against women and girls, I know with absolute clarity what the solution is to this global pandemic of the violation of human rights across gender lines, and must give myself fully to implementing this solution: the Equality Studies Global Initiative which I’m advising the UN Human Rights Office on.