A Controversial Indian Film and a Call to Action

Freida Pinto at the U.S. Premiere of India's Daughter (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Freida Pinto at the U.S. Premiere of India’s Daughter (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

As the lights dimmed Monday night, a group of people gathered on the stage of Mason Hall at Baruch College in Manhattan. Actresses Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, Dakota Fanning, and actor Farhan Akhtar were up on the stage, but this was not a performance. It was a call for action against gender inequality and violence against women.

Streep, in her soft yet commanding voice, asked everyone in attendance to put down their cameras and phones, as she led a candlelight vigil for Jyothi Singh, the victim of a brutal rape.

The glittery gathering was befitting a movie premiere. Actors walked down the short passageway as the continuous flash of cameras blazed on them. But, the solemn yet determined mood made it clear that everyone had gathered for a purpose: to screen the first showing in the United States of director Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter.”

The film is based on the horrific rape of Jyothi Singh, an Indian medical student, in Delhi in 2012, and features detailed interviews with the perpetrators of the crime, their defenders and brings to fore a deep seated mindset about society’s regressive views on the status of women as dispensable, second-class citizen. This outlook, however, is not endemic to any one part of the world, but universal in its nature. And the people in attendance underscored the prevalence of this harsh truth.

“This moving documentary is harrowing not only for its heartbreaking, unflinching look at a young woman’s life brutally ended, but for the intimate, clear eyed look at the young men who broke her, and their defenders,” said Streep, at the beginning of the vigil.

A long queue of people bordered the building, as guests waited their turn to be admitted inside. The gathering, which comprised of women of all age groups, a large contingent of students and few men, recoiled in horror at what they saw on screen.

The movie clocks about an hour, and describes in detail the events that transpired on the night of December 16, 2012. There was a collective gasp when the rapist talked about the brutal nature of the assault, especially pulling out the victim’s entrails. After the screening, guests talked about the impact that the film had made on them.

Meryl Streep leads the candlelight vigil before the screening of India's Daughter (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Meryl Streep leads the candlelight vigil before the screening of India’s Daughter (Seema Somshekar/ NY City Lens)

Mirela Music, 20, a sociology student at Brooklyn College, said the movie was a huge “reality check” for her. The film, she said highlighted the universal nature of violence against women. “I think that was actually the greatest message of the film,” said Music, who is originally from Montenegro. “There’s so much violence against women and it’s mostly unsaid, and the women are shamed for being victims.” Inspired, she now wants to screen the movie for fellow students at her university’s community center.

The incident spurred a huge backlash and a series of protests in India in 2012, which raged for months after. And even more than two years later, Jyothi’s story continues to capture the imagination and attention of people around the world.

Hillary Clinton’s Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit that works for the advancement and empowerment of women, hosted the premiere along with Plan International, a children’s development organization.

“When we heard about it, we just knew that it was something that we needed to get behind and support,” said Alyse Nelson, CEO of Vital Voices. “I don’t think there’s a single person among us who doesn’t remember this horrific incident. If there is any way to make sure that this young life did not die in vain, but is used as a light that continues to highlight these issues.”

The film was banned in India partly due to the comments of the rapist and his lawyers, who blamed the victim as cause of the rape. The movie was scheduled to air on an Indian network on March 8, but due to the ban, the telecast was cancelled. The network, however, aired a black screen for one hour, in protest of the ban.

Nelson believes that talking about violence against women is the only way to deal with this problem, which according to her “is the greatest challenge facing the human race.” And what better place to start the discussion about gender equality than an educational institution, she asks?

“Around the world, one billion women and girls are victims of gender based violence. One billion.” enunciated Nelson. “There is not a country that is free from it and not a woman that is free from it. It happens everywhere.”

Director Leslee Udwin, herself a victim of rape, took to the stage soon after the screening of the film, her voice, raw.

“I’m hoarse,” she added, “but not gagged.”

Udwin asked the audience to imagine a world without rape, domestic beating and trafficking. “The disease is not rape. The disease is gender inequality,” said Udwin, in a horse voice. “If we wish to tackle this issue effectively, we must address these attitudes and the mindset they inform.”

Udwin’s work and her words moved many students in the audience. An overwhelmed Azemina Lucevic, 18, could barely control her emotions. “I did cry the entire time,” she confessed, as signs of mascara that had run down her cheek bore testament to her tears. “It’s so strange to me that I can’t imagine a world like this, but at the same time, I do live in it. It seems so far removed, but it really isn’t. It’s in our homes, our schools, it’s between interactions.”

But, Lucevic was eloquent in expressing her views and believed that the film is a step in the right direction. “It’s really important that this discourse continues, because at the end of the day, sexism does not belong to India, sexism doesn’t belong to the United States,” she said. “Sexism, misogyny and the establishment of hierarchies that are intended to promote it are worldwide and this issue needs to be addressed.”