#stillshot features a frame from the moving pictures that grace our screens, and occasionally their promotional campaigns. We want to spark discussion on the visual art of film, and the world it negotiates often within a single still. Also, ‘cause there’s some well purdy viz-art shots to be dissected out there.
She is an old daughter, this daughter of India. She squats in front of multiple camera lenses with her husband and the blurred faces of their living children, low to the dusty ground, on the step to their home. Behind them, colourful shawls are billowed over walls, quite beautiful, in clear poverty. Unless she tells us, there is no telling her age because as Steve McCurry found in the face that made his name, a decade may as well be a half century in the stasis of poverty. She is crying. She wants to know who will care for her in her old age, who will burn her body and perform her last rites, now that the child she raised is dead.
She is the mother of a rapist and a murderer, this daughter of India. In fact, she is the mother of two murderers, two rapists, brothers who drove a bus masquerading as legitimate on the highways of Delhi at night, in search of a woman to entrap.
Her name is Kalyani Singh, this daughter of India. This frame of her and the film’s director Leslee Udwin is not in the documentary, and in the frame of the narrative this daughter of India features very little. It is indeed questionable whether the mother of the murderer should be pictured in the one precious shot over the mother of the murdered. Yet I think it is a telling still shot. It breaks a lot of borders, a lot of fourth walls. Udwin reaches across and pats Kalyani on the back to comfort her in her distress. Her expression is one of deep and gentle sympathy. She looms out of the corner of the frame, barely in focus save for that intense gaze hinted at in the alignment of her face.
In the film, there is no comfort, no pat on the back, for Kalyani. There is no comfort for Asha Singh, another mother, another daughter of India. The two women are not related, except by circumstance. Kalyani’s children, along with four other men, raped and murdered Asha’s daughter. They pulled out her intestines. They dumped her on the side of the road. She was twenty-three. She was a medical student who worked in call centres to pay for her studies. She had finished her exams and had an internship lined up. When she was born, her parents celebrated by giving sweets to the neighbours ‘as if she were a boy.’ When she was killed, her parents gave permission to the BBC to document the story of her murder and its aftermath in India.
India’s daughter. Her name was Jyoti.
Kalyani’s son Ram Singh committed suicide in jail in 2013, and Mukesh Singh’s words in the BBC documentary that contextualises our stillshot are the reason the Indian government claims to have banned this daughter of India’s face, her words, her views, her message, and by extension the faces, words, views and messages of the case’s defence lawyers, the widowed wives, the childless parents, the friends, the politicians and intellectuals, protesters of upper echelons of Indian society and bureaucracy, from its own screens. ‘It takes two hands to clap,’ are Mukesh Singh’s words. ‘Rape is more the fault of the woman than the man.’ The government has decided, having heard them, that they are not fit for the rest of India to hear. It banned the BBC documentary film, India’s Daughter, from being broadcast earlier this month.
I do not think that what this documentary had to say was revelatory. Mukesh Singh’s words only reflect the sentiments of his defence lawyer, AP Singh, who made headlines at the time of the murderers’ sentencing by declaring that, had he a daughter who behaved like Jyoti, defacing her family by going out after dark and accompanied by a male friend, he would have taken her to an outhouse and burnt her alive. He still holds to this assertion. Footage shown of mass protests following Jyoti Singh’s hospitalisation at the beginning of the film suggest India is perfectly aware of the situation. So why was it banned? By the government, and across the country upheld by institutions and universities including Kolkata and in particular by its female Vice Chancellor Anuradha Lohia? What great secret did it hold? What incite to violenc …?
In the frame, Udwin leans over and puts her arm around the murderers’ mother, whose face is worn with grief and something harder, something less tangible. A daughter of India. What becomes clear over the course of the film is the extent to which these women of Delhi poverty must be selfish in their needs, and hold their family close, and be basically, basely pragmatic in their love. ‘No one was there,’ Kalyani says. ‘No one knows what happened.’ The wife of rapist Vinay Sharma, who is awaiting death by hanging, sits in her corner of the slum with large, placid eyes and says she will kill her infant son. ‘What else can I do? Who will provide for him?’ The juvenile culprit’s mother does not bother to wash her dishes, for there is nothing to eat. Another of her sons lies on a wooden panel board, the whites of his eyes bulging behind the blurring out of his face. ‘His mind is off.’ It is a hard thing to watch.
I am not sure all this can be qualified artistically. Poetically. I am not sure a country needs an arm around the shoulder and a sympathetic expression, leaning into close up and scrutinizing. In writing this, am I the soft, uncalloused hand of Leslee Udwin, director and sympathiser and daughter of somewhere else? Offering up some sort of prose-poem to evoke sentiment. Do I have a place to comment? To platform commentary?
Democratically, absolutely. It is a good documentary. It does not portend to answer any questions but instead seeks to pose them. At no point is Jyoti Singh Pandey lost to the wider cultural metaphor that her murder has sometimes come to signify. And the Indian government, which prides itself in its liberal democracy, had absolutely no place banning it.
But perhaps to ask these questions goes some way to understanding how such a strong reaction to a non-revelatory, purportedly objective and fly-on-the-wall film could occur. Why the authorities would bother, when the seeds for protest (and for change) are planted. To ask these questions about a British filmmaker’s place in Indian affairs…does India need another Western commentary on its backwardness, with the soundbites of desperate, misogynistic defence lawyers drowning out progressive changes such as the Verma Report thrown in at the end of the film? A camera lens, especially in these circumstances, will never be objective, and the film should not have tried to portray itself as such; the gentle hand on the back, soothing and urging forwards, urging to go on, slightly out of focus and always there, behind a fourth wall. The connotation that the right to comment comes with an inherently more progressive outlook. The certainty of the right to mediate the Hindu, the Punjabi, the Urdu…
The clue, again, is in the stillshot, where Jyoti Singh cannot be, and where another mother, another daughter, cries. The focus for change will come from India, and India alone. India’s women and her men. It is a young thing, a potential. India’s daughter.
Hannah O is the Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TV at PTL. She really likes camera equipment, long words, and anything she can deep fat fry. Do not approach Hannah when she is eating fried food in the early hours; she will be drunk and convinced she knows everything. Elsewise, these days she may be found in Edinburgh University Library with her head in a book – probably Facebook.
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(Image sourced from: here)
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