Reflections on a Film with a Powerful Story to Tell

By Elissa Harris

Actor Sean Penn introduced the film India’s Daughter at the screening I attended. He likened watching the provocative film to getting an MRI: an uncomfortable but sometimes necessary diagnostic technique.

British filmmaker Leslee Udwin decided to make India’s Daughter while watching television coverage of the protests in India following the highly publicized gang rape (and subsequent death from severe internal injuries) of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old female medical student in Delhi in December 2012.

India’s Daughter intelligently intertwines the story of Jyoti’s life as a dedicated student and devoted daughter with a recounting of the fateful attack in a private bus Jyoti and a male friend boarded after a trip to the movies (to see Life of Pi).  It also intertwines interviews that reveal the staunch beliefs and biases of the attackers and their defense attorneys. Udwin additionally includes footage from the emotional protests that inspired coverage from international media and pressed on government officials to implement a committee to reform the Indian legal and penal system in relation to rape.

This documentary is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes inspiring, but arguably necessary when we consider the state of how women are viewed and treated in the world today. For all of the gains we have made in areas like technology, in other areas, such as the rights, equality of, and attitudes toward women, humanity’s report card is left lacking. For example, rape is a crime where the victim is often shamed, leading to low rates of both reporting and justice.

Stories, though, have power; they can fuel the movements that create change and they can be a vehicle for healing–if we share them. With passion and brilliance, Leslee Udwin dares to share in this courageous film. By interviewing Jyoti’s friends and family members as well as some of the rapists and their friends and family, defense attorneys, and government officials, Udwin reveals a complex set of ingrained attitudes and issues that influence the prevalence of crimes against women not only in India, but around the world.

When she speaks about the making of the film, Udwin says that she initially expected to meet “monsters” when she sat down with the men who had committed the crime. But they were ordinary, she reported. Ordinary, but possessing the strong belief that they were justified in their actions and that rape is not a punishable crime. This act is “a man’s right,” and it is the fault of the victim that the incident occurred. Throughout the film, many of the men interviewed (from different economic backgrounds and with different levels of education and employment) commented on how rape is basically a way of life and insinuated how this attack and murder was the fault of the victim based on the time of night she was out, that she was on a date with a boy at the movies, or even what she might have been wearing.  One man said that if a woman is being raped, she should not fight back and just take it in silence, otherwise they will need to teach her more of a lesson. One of the defense attorneys interviewed even went so far to say that if his daughter was engaging in such unladylike behavior, he would light her on fire.

When we recognize the power of such pervasive attitudes, it be devastating and hopeless, but there is a much needed light that can shine as a result of a public discussion. Inciting change globally first comes from recognition. Jyoti Singh (whose name “Jyoti” means “light”) in her death has shown that light to become an agent of much-needed change related to the issues of rape and violence against women. Yet let us not forget her humanity, and the fact that she was a daughter taken from her family too soon and too tragically; a daughter who dreamt of a life of service. Leslee Udwin, in India’s Daughter, provides a both fitting tribute and a call to action.

It is a call and tribute I appreciate as a global health and wellness educator, corporate wellness coach, and practicing yogini. For twenty-five years, my work has included bringing healing and optimum healthy lifestyles to people’s physical, emotional, and environmental health.  I have worked with numerous individuals and groups suffering from an array of issues in these areas, from cancer to food allergies to overcoming emotional trauma from tragic incidents such childhood abuse and rape. I have also worked on healing myself in these areas. For me and for many of my clients, yoga is an integral part of our lives and a key tool, not only survive these experiences but also thrive.

Thoughts of yoga often bring up associations with India, the birthplace of the practice. While we may carry with us idealized images of a peaceful nation where people are loving and kind, everyone shows respect and lives in a perpetual state of gratitude, and religious ritual and yoga influences everything. We think of smiling yogis in white robes dispensing wisdom to eager foreign visitors who ravenously gobble up the morsels on their own paths to enlightenment as if they hadn’t eaten for months. I can’t help but ask how it is that the birthplace of a practice I hold so dear to my life and my own survival, how the birthplace of the Gandhi, one of history’s most well-known pacifists, can still participate in such ruthless acts. The truth is that this is a global phenomenon and one that is complex with layers of dynamics related to power, fear, and silence.

Within the tenets of yoga itself there is hope; the very purpose of the philosophy and practice is to teach us to live a life of love and peace for ourselves and all living creatures.  The mantras and chants repeated in yoga perpetuate this philosophy.  One prevalent mantra, Om mani padme hum, is said to address the nature of suffering and how to remove its causes—therein lies our personal and societal solution.  We must face and treat the cause, not simply the symptom. As in systems of integrative health, specialists seek the root cause to release the symptoms.  This gives us the direction for changing the global permissive environment for rape and violence against woman.

India's Daughter Film Review, LA YOGA Magazine, November 2015The film India’s Daughter, through its powerful storytelling and fitting homage to Jyoti Singh, allows us to support our collective health and wellness. I believe that seeing this film and sharing its message can help create a world in which we educate each other—and our youth–with a new set of assumptions about how we treat each other on a bus–and in everyday life.  

For more information about India’s Daughter visit: indiasdaughter.com.

The film is currently showing in LA at Sundance Cinemas in West Hollywood: sundancecinemas.com

According to the latest UN Foundation and World Bank statistics:

-One in three women GLOBALLY is beaten, forced in to sex, or abused.  

-It is estimated that worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

-Every twenty minutes, a woman is raped in India.

-Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war, and malaria, (according to World Bank data).