An eerie whitish spotlight follows a speeding bus down a highway in Delhi. The footage is in a grainy black and white, shot from an eagle-eyed view. The date is marked on the frames: Dec. 16, 2012 — the day a hideous crime occurred that would soon incite the outrage of the world. While it’s always out of view, we know that inside that bus, as we, the audience, watch it drive monotonously down the highway, the crime is taking place. A woman lies in the back of the darkened vehicle, begging for help as five men rape and eviscerate her. Her injuries were so severe that Jyoti Singh, 23, would die nearly two weeks later. The doctor who treated her said it was shocking she lived at all — that none of her insides made sense anymore, they had been so destroyed.
The footage of the bus appears to be actual tape captured by closed-circuit cameras during the attack — and is part of a chilling new documentary called India’s Daughter, which, through extensive interviews with the perpetrators, their families, Singh’s family, and various legal and cultural experts, pieces together not only a remarkably full picture of what happened that night in Delhi but the extensive cultural and legal fallout that occurred afterward, and of which it has now become an intrinsic part.
India has gone out of its way to mark itself as not only a place where violence against women is rampant and goes mainly unpunished, but where outing these crimes is all but forbidden.
The film — the latest work by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin — reveals the entrenchment of violence in India by presenting a deep schism: poverty versus the middle class. This division is brought to life on the screen through scenes where the violence of the act itself is discussed by the poor (the perpetrators and their families) and, relative to them, the financially better off (the victim’s family and those in the government, police, and court system). The chiaroscuro of attitudes is jolting: The perpetrators and their families (and their grossly outspoken lawyers) say in no uncertain terms that women belong at home, not gallivanting out to movies at night in the company of a non-relative, as Singh was the night she was attacked. (Their misogynistic comments that blame the victim have been widely reported.) Singh’s family, in contrast, explain how they nurtured her ambitions — her father told her she could grow up to be a judge like his own brother, and paid for her medical education to become a physiotherapist. Singh, as South Asia specialist Myra MacDonald put it, was “a woman who had tried to escape her class.” That kind of striving for a woman in a hierarchical, patriarchal culture is not well tolerated.
But even in this case, India has gone out of its way to mark itself as not only a place where violence against women is rampant and goes mainly unpunished, but where outing these crimes is all but forbidden. Just one day after the attack, mass peaceful protests quickly turned violent when police opened water cannons and lobbed tear gas canisters into the crowds. It was an early, clear message that expressing discontent with the way the government handles sexualized violence will not be tolerated. That putting the country’s shame on the world stage was an embarrassment. And it was only the beginning of the silencing.