Jyoti Singh, 23, had cause to celebrate. It was no ordinary Sunday.
“Happiness was just a few steps away,” said her father, Badri Singh, a worker.
He and his wife, Asha, originally from Uttar Pradesh, had sold their family land to provide schooling not just for their two sons, but also Jyoti.
“Papa, whatever money you have saved for my wedding, use for my education,” Jyoti had instructed her father.
Badri’s brothers wondered why their father was wasting money on a girl.
On that Sunday — Dec. 16, 2012 — Jyoti, whose name means light and happiness, had just completed her medical exams to become a doctor. Speaking excellent English, she spent nights working in a call center from 8pm until 4am, slept for three hours, then studied. Her ambition was to build and run a hospital in her family’s village.
“A girl can do anything,” she would say.
However, that evening, in Delhi, she decided to go to the cinema to see The Life of Pi with a male friend.
At 8:30pm, on the way home, the pair got into an off-duty charter bus.
India’s Daughter, a powerful, brave and heart-wrenching documentary made by Leslee Udwin, provokes grief and anger, but also pity for the ignorance. It charts what then happened on that moving bus as Jyoti was brutally raped by five men and a 17-year-old (“the juvenile”), eviscerated, then thrown on to the street.
It shows how for the next 30 days across India, women and men demonstrated on the streets of the cities, calling for the equality recognized in India’s constitution, but never delivered, marking what former Indian solicitor-general Gopal Subramaniam calls in the film “a momentous expression of hope for society.”
“It was an Arab spring for gender equality,” Udwin said. “What impelled me to leave my husband and two children for two years while I made the film in India was not so much the horror of the rape as the inspiring and extraordinary eruption on the streets. A cry of ‘enough is enough.’”
“Unprecedented numbers of ordinary men and women, day after day, faced a ferocious Indian government crackdown that included tear gas, baton charges and water cannons,” she said.
“They were protesting for my rights and the rights of all women. That gives me optimism. I cannot recall another country having done that in my lifetime,” she added.
India’s Daughter is to be broadcast on BBC4 on Sunday, International Women’s Day, and simultaneously shown in seven other nations, including India, Switzerland, Norway and Canada.
On Monday, actresses Frieda Pinto and Meryl Streep are to attend a screening in New York, launching a worldwide India’s Daughter campaign against gender inequality and sexual violence against women and girls.
It begins with 20 million pupils viewing the film and taking part in workshops in Maharashtra, an Indian state that includes Mumbai.
Each nation has its own appalling bloody tally. India has a population of 1.2 billion. A rape occurs every 20 minutes. In England and Wales, 85,000 women are raped every year. In Denmark, one in five women has experienced a sexual assault.
Sexual assault, rape, acid attacks, murder, domestic violence, the termination of female fetuses, sex trafficking and female genital mutilation are all manifestations of male power. What is writ very large in India’s Daughter — but camouflaged in other nations, where equality is more strongly embedded in law — is the low value placed on women and girls and the determination of some men — educated or impoverished — to keep women padlocked to the past.
“We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” said one man in Udwin’s film.
What is shocking is that he is ML Sharma, defense lawyer for the men convicted of Jyoti’s rape and murder.
A second defense lawyer, AP Singh, said that if his daughter or sister “engaged in premarital activities ... in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
“I began this film with a narrow focus,” Israeli-born Udwin, 57, said. “’Why do men rape?’ I discovered that the disease is a lack of respect for gender. It is not just about a few rotten apples; it is the barrel itself that is rotten.”
Udwin was an actress before becoming an award-winning producer. Her work includes Who Bombed Birmingham?, about the miscarriage of justice that imprisoned the Birmingham Six, and East is East.
For India’s Daughter, she spent 30 hours interviewing rapists, including Gaurav, a 34-year-old man serving 10 years for raping a five-year-old.
“He told me in minute detail what he had done. How he had taken off her knickers. How her eyes were wide with fear. How he had done it front and back. I asked him how tall she was. He stood up and put his hand above his knee. I asked him: ‘How could you do something so terrible that would ruin a child’s life?’ He said: ‘She was a beggar girl; her life was of no value,’” Udwin said.
Udwin found the girl, Neeta, now aged 10, and plans to make a film about her family’s resilience and resistance.
“She is doing OK. Her mother is a beggar and has put Neeta and two other children through school,” Udwin said.
Central to India’s Daughter is an interview in Delhi’s Tahir jail with Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus.
His brother, Ram, was found hanging in his cell months after the trial. The two lived in a Delhi slum. Also involved was Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller; Vinay Sharma, a gym assistant; unemployed Akshay Thakur; and “the juvenile,” living on the streets since he was 11.
They had all been drinking before going out where “wrong things are done.”
“You cannot clap with one hand; it takes two hands. A decent girl will not roam around at night. A girl is more responsible for rape than a boy... About 20 percent of girls are good,” Mukesh Singh said.
Jyoti fought back.
“She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they would have dropped her off after ‘doing her’ and only hit the boy,” Singh said. “The 15 or 20 minutes of the incident, I was driving the bus. The girl was screaming: ‘Help me, help me.’ The juvenile put his hand in her and pulled out something. It was her intestines... We dragged her to the front of the bus and threw her out,” Singh said.
Udwin, in Hindi, reads a list of Jyoti’s injuries to Singh, caused by an iron bar and multiple rapes. They include bite marks and massive internal injuries. He shows no remorse.
A gynecologist who cared for Jyoti said that for months she asked herself the same question: “Why?”
Jyoti, initially named “Nirbhaya” by the media — meaning fearless in Hindi — to preserve her anonymity, died after 13 days.
Her parents, given 2 million rupees (US$32,300) by the Indian government, have set up the Nirbhaya Trust to help women who have experienced violence.
“We want to help those girls who have no one,” Jyoti’s remarkable father said.
India’s government, to quell the protest that followed Jyoti’s death, set up a three-member commission, headed by human rights lawyer and former Indian chief justice Jagdish Sharan Verma. It received 80,000 responses and delivered a landmark 630-page report in 29 days, calling for the law concerning sexual violence to be modernized, removing terms such as “intent to outrage her modesty.”
LIGHT OF HOPE
New legislation failed to fulfill many of the report’s recommendations. Since then, the number of reported rapes has increased hugely, as more women come forward.
The juvenile is serving three years. Two of the convicted men are appealing against their sentence, a process that could take years. The judge said they should hang because “this is the rarest of cases.” Except that it is not. It is one of many. Just over two years after Jyoti’s rape, a woman was raped by four men, beaten, her eyes gouged out.
Jyoti’s father, a man of shining integrity, says of his daughter: “In death, she lit such a torch... whatever darkness there is in this world should be dispelled by this light.”
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