The controversial documentary film, India’s Daughter, has been opposed, “restrained” and banned. Unsurprisingly, the ban has only served to escalate the stakes in the realm of global publicity. While the BBC brought forward the film premiere by four days, the film is freely available on the internet for those interested, despite attempts by the Indian government to block it. It has been widely circulated, shared and debated on social media.
The reviews have been mixed — the aesthetics and the narrative of the film have been judged to be powerful, superficial, moving, banal, revealing and uninsightful, all at once. Yet at the heart of the controversy is not the film itself, but the larger global event called #Indiasdaughter. Here I want to draw a distinction between the actual film and the production of the event around it in the public domain.
The #Indiasdaughter campaign, and the attendant controversy, manufactured in the global circuits of activism, celebrity advocacy and a groundswell of public protest in India, have evoked passionate responses on many sides. It has also brought to the surface an old fault line along which global North-South relations are being reconfigured.
Though set apart by nearly a century, the #Indiasdaughter campaign reminds one of an earlier controversy about the sexual oppression of Indian women. In 1927, American journalist Katherine Mayo in Mother India infamously sought to awaken Indian women by showing contrasts between their actual subordinate situation and their glorification in the nationalist discourse. Her argument was that a weak, sterile Indian society was unfit for political autonomy within the British Empire. This drew the ire of nationalists, including the Indian women who saw the publication as imperialist propaganda. Gandhi famously dismissed it as a drain inspector’s report and criticised Mayo for drawing wrong conclusions. As historian Mrinalini Sinha has shown in her richly detailed work, Spectres of Mother India, the controversy helped disclose the transformation in the relationship between society and state, and how women’s responses made them visible and recognisable in a colonial landscape otherwise thought to be made up of backward religious communities. Whether #Indiasdaughter will disappear from the footnotes of history or become memorable is yet uncertain. But what is clear is that the film has evoked sharp responses from different actors — the Indian state, Indian women activists who see it as representative of the “white saviour complex”, and those who oppose the ban. What is left unarticulated, kept below the surface, is how the Indian political landscape itself is being reinterpreted.
The reason I invoke the Mother India controversy is not to draw any outright comparisons between Leslee Udwin’s film and Mayo’s book, but to see what the controversy can tell us about the nature of the transformation India is undergoing. Or, put differently, how does the old question of female oppression figure in this restructuring of the nation in the glare of global publicity? To be sure, the stated agenda of the two works is quite different. If Mayo’s engagement with Indian women was to argue against the possibility of Indian political autonomy, Udwin approaches it from a point of solidarity with Indian women and even more emotively as a rape victim herself. What probably muddled these fine distinctions is the almost reflexive use of the language of “civilisational culture” that Udwin used in her responses to defend the film. The promotional film material bearing the profile of the rapist made use of an equally charged claim of having captured “the face of evil” on camera. On other occasions, Udwin used the metaphor of holding the mirror to Indian society to help it see the dark reality. So it is not the film itself that drew strong opposition, but the commentaries that often preceded the moment of viewing. In fact, the opposition gathered steam much before there was even a possibility of viewing the film. That Udwin’s claim about the film being a gesture of global solidarity that placed sexual violence against women in India in a wider context turned out to be largely incorrect has hardly helped.
If at all, then, the invocation of the Mother India controversy here reminds us that we are in an arena that appears to be familiar, albeit in an altogether new, unfamiliar global context for the postcolonial nation. India now positions itself, and is positioned by the world, as an “emerging market” seeking a longed-for place at the high table of global politics. It is this seeming contrast of the “world’s largest free-market democracy” saddled with a backward “mindset” that frames much of the global coverage. And it is this contrast that shapes the nervous response of the Indian state that has led it to ban the film. The film’s narrative strategy — ostensibly to reveal the mentality of the rapist — has unwittingly brought to the surface the well-known public secret that men (and women) within patriarchal settings hold rape victims responsible for getting raped. The political class thinks through the lens of patriarchy and believes that women who transgress the boundaries of domestic space are courting danger. In a global context, this view seems quite outdated, even regressive. This is not the kind of endorsement that the world’s largest free-market democracy appears to be seeking. After all, it risks pushing India’s economic agenda out of global sight. But the desire to be celebrated as the motor of the world’s economic growth is offset by a fear of Westernisation and the erosion of the Indian moral world.
The writer is associate professor of Modern South Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen