British filmmaker and actor Leslee Udwin is in the eye of a storm following “unwarranted” controversies over “India&’s Daughter,’ the documentary based on the Delhi gang-rape victim. The 23-year-old medico was gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi by five men and a 17-year-old on 16 December 2012. The BAFTA award winning filmmaker, overwhelmed by street protests against the crime, decided to make a documentary on the braveheart and gift it to India. A news channel was provided free rights to screen it on March 8, International Women&’s Day, hours before the world premiere scheduled at New York to launch a worldwide campaign against gender inequality and sexual violence against women and girls. But, a controversy over interviewing of convicts led to the banning of the film in India.

In an interview to Rita Joseph, Udwin speaks on why she embarked upon the controversial film: 

Does the ban on India&’s Daughter and the adverse publicity deter you?

It is very unfortunate. But, no, it does not deter me. I espouse social causes and sometimes do face such flak. If I set out to do something I try my best to achieve that, regardless of what I face. I have done no wrong. In fact the ban on India&’s Daughter has had more people watching it on Youtube. I was not trying to make any commercial gain as is being made out. I had gifted the film to India. Only 40 per cent of the film is funded by BBC, I had to shell out 110,00 pounds and face a huge debt. 

You did not flout rules?

No I took permission wherever required. I have documents from the Ministry of Home Affairs and from Tihar Jail to prove that. I never ever went against the rules or the laws of the land. I got permission to get into the prison and interview convicts. The film is not violent. We have not re-constructed the rape. We have made this film with respect for parents of victim.

You have interviewed the convicts, were they paid to speak?

Yes I interviewed the convicts. But no, no one was paid. I wanted to know their mindset. If you don’t understand the psyche of the rapist, how do you solve the problem? I also interviewed lawyers, police officials, a doctor, psychologist among others. I took 87 hours of interview.

Did you not seek a feedback on the documentary?

I did. I screened the documentary before it was edited fully for a select gathering that included Amod Kanth of Prayas, an NGO and a former top police official, legal luminaries Leela Seth and Gopal Subramaniam. The latter had assisted late Justice Verma in framing the laws against rape after the incident. I wanted to ensure the documentary is fair and balanced. Subramaniam, a former solicitor general, had described the film as “a momentous expression of hope for society”.

What then led to the controversy?

I wish they (authorities) had seen the film and then taken action.

Did you face any such problem before as a filmmaker?

Yes during the filming of Who Bombed Birmingham. That film was against the establishment, this (India&’s Daughter) is not. It was the greatest miscarriage of justice in Great Britain. Quite a complex case wherein judges and police colluded to frame six men for various reasons. I had personnel from the special branch threatening me that if I continued it would be the end of my career. There were also bomb threats. It was a difficult film to make, but I was determined to see justice done. After the film was screened, six innocent men jailed for 17 years were set free.

What was the objective of India&’s Daughter?

The objective was to study why do men rape, why does such violent rape happen not only in India but also around the world. I realized the answer to my question lay beyond the rapists, it lay in the society, in the thinking, in the culture of how women are viewed. Women are often perceived as (of) lesser value than men. Many women are still colluding with this thought.

What has the film achieved?

It&’s a real story, and a film can do what a conflict or a law cannot. It penetrates into your heart. It makes you understand what suffering is because it shows you everything graphically. You go with the characters and feel their pain. People who have seen this documentary have been moved, cried and infuriated. 

They get so angry that uncivilised and idiotic things are being said in the 21st century. This film is part of a larger campaign which emphasizes on gender sensitization. We need to change mindsets.

Tell us about your proposed campaign?

As part of the India campaign, we were aiming at getting gender respect and gender equality classes formally inducted in the school curriculum. Preferably from the age of six as kids start going to school.

It was proposed that to begin with workshops would be held for 20 million students in Maharashtra. The film was to roll out with discussion packs. Haryana state had also shown similar interest. Our campaign is supported by NGOs like PLAN India, PLAN UK, Action Aid India, Magic Bus India and Shakti Vahini.

We have also started a website – The campaign website is basically a hub not only about rape but also all manifestation of gender inequality – trafficking, child marriage etc. We have gathered together partners who work in this field and are urging people to join this campaign to take action to make suggestions. We have lots of information, a resource and helpline page, a name and shame page etc.

What made you embark upon the documentary?

What prompted me to make the film was not so much the rape but the huge protests that followed. I came in gratitude, I came in admiration of the protest, that saw hundreds brave water cannons in the chilling cold in support of the victim. Their courage, their determination inspired me. They were fighting for me, for women. Though I was in another country in another part of the world, I was so grateful for this. I have never seen such a thing in any part of the world. I had to take part in this to contribute my bit.

How did you get the rapists to speak?

Mukesh spoke at the insistence of his mother? He was unrepentant. What the rapists expressed was fear and selfishness. Mukesh could not see what he has done is wrong. He said why are they making such a fuss when everybody is doing this. He said it is up to women to prevent rape. You can’t clap with one hand. A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. He denied having raped her.

What was your reaction?

The rapists were uneducated men but I was appalled at the comments of the educated defence lawyers. Advocate ML Sharma said “We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.” Even more shocking was what another defense lawyer AP Singh said. He said “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself… I would take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” Come on we are not in the times of Mughal invasion. But we are still stuck in the set of attitudes. And this is not India&’s problem. This is a global menace. In UK, one in three girls between the age of 13 and 17 has suffered sexual violence. One in five women globally is either raped or has been molested.

The misogynist comments of the lawyers was so horrifying that I am planning to screen this film at Doughty Street Chambers, which is the premiere human rights lawyers chambers in London. We have the top UK lawyers watching this film. We want them to work with bar associations around the world to make sure we don’t have defenders like AP Singh. Misogynist lawyers are not acceptable. How will society function if its laws are also mocked by its own representatives?

Did it hit you personally?

Yes it did. At one time, I was in the midst of a panic attack. I could take it no longer. I wanted to stop it and go home. But my daughter Maya, who was just 13 then, dissuaded me. She said ‘Mummy you are not coming home. You have to finish the job at hand. You have to do it for me and my generation of girls.’ That gave me strength to continue.

Then a few months before the completion the film I got this numbing news that my husband is suffering from cancer. I wanted to fly back but he said no, not until you have completed the film.

Is this your first film with an Indian context?

No, I did East is East, which won a British Oscar, and a sequel to it West is West with Om Puri. ‘Chak de futteh! I lived in the Punjab for six months.

What is your reading of India?

India is a big unwieldy clash of old and new. There are masses of backward-looking people and masses of forward looking people. A real wave of forward-looking people are coming across and they are making choices. Young people need to stand up and ascribe to their choices. They must not accept what is unacceptable.

— The interviewer is a former features editor of The Statesman