The problem of representation in ‘India’s Daughter’

Jyoti Singh, the real name of the woman in question, has not been allowed to be what she was, but made into what she had no say over.

Manash Bhattacharjee
9 March 2015
Screenshot from YouTube

Screenshot from YouTubeThe name ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless one), attributed to Delhi’s gang rape victim of December 2012, whose violent death triggered off nation-wide outrage and protests, was the first instance of how the media manipulated the politics of representation.

It was through this naming that the victim was inducted into a symbolic nationalist imagery, evoking the figure of a challenged and challenging woman that suited everyone, willing to turn her example into a cause. The name was seen as a rightful vindication and representation of the woman’s image. The overwhelming success of this naming provided the first step towards inventing the deceased victim as a populist icon, easily exploited by the moralising tendency of the media and the state.

The state was thrust upon the role of a law enforcer, and stringent law was demanded from the judiciary. Activists and others gave in to the larger mood, demanding the need for further disciplining of society. A self-punitive consensus, in a nation already reeling under an alarming number of juridical encroachments in the name of ‘security’, was sought in order that it could be imposed on people’s lives.

But the media, always happy to flex its populist influence, encouraged this legalizing consensus between civil society and state. It helped media houses to take up the dead woman’s cause by parading her parents on stage and making them reply to serious questions that blurred the distinction between primitive and restorative justice, between revenge and law.

When the parents did not answer the questions according to the demands of the script, they were tutored to answer according to liberal norms, sensitized by the left-liberal criticism against capital punishment. But the initial problem remained – the assigned name of the victim working as a freely adaptable and useable signifier of nationalist rhetoric that involved a treacherous mix of legalese, morality and patriarchal lecturing. The populist discourse had already christened her ‘India’s daughter’. It is an irony that suddenly a documentary known by that phrase has become the bone of contention.

But the contention is legitimate. Some who are opposed to the banning of the film are also, for good reason, alarmed by the naming of the film. One usurpation leads to another. By naming the film ‘India’s Daughter’, Leslee Udwin’s documentary panders to the iconised figure of the woman in populist terms where her gendering had already gained national sanction. Jyoti Singh, the real name of the woman in question, has not been allowed to be what she was, but made into what she had no say over.

The contention arises from that initial violence of representing her beyond her circumstances and what she bravely faced until she could no longer do so. The dignity of her specific struggle was not allowed to remain within that disturbing area of questions that spoke loudly against all kinds of moral, cultural and why not – nationalist – policing of her freedom and her right to assert her space in the heart of a brutal city. The point is not simply whether Jyoti can or cannot be termed ‘India’s Daughter’. The point is by calling her ‘India’s Daughter’ what kind of signal is Udwin sending to the culturally conservative forces of this country. By fixing her identity to a gendered idea of the nation, she is rather being slipped into the patriarchal discourse of ‘private property’.

Serious questions have also been raised regarding the interview made with the rapist and murderer in the documentary. The point is not merely how the man most bizarrely justifies his act. It raises the same, central problem of representation. Just like the figure of India’s daughter, this man is also being represented beyond the socio-economic specificity of his identity and thrown into a larger-than-life image of a man who stands for all other men like him. This mode of representation where the man is termed an evil incarnate by the film maker completely glosses over the heterogeneity of the problem in the real, social world. This convoluted religious symbolisation of the rapist into an abstract individual figure offers absolutely no insight into (and indeed rather, obfuscates) the problem of men committing similar crimes under the shadows of caste, community and uniform. Crimes committed under these shadows elicit a far more reluctant response from the nationalist mainstream, as this involves taking stock of deeper social prejudices and it is bound to encounter a more profound attitude of denial.

There is always a danger of running away from specificities and drawing larger iconographies for the sake of populist effect. Any sensitive filmmaker ought to be careful not to fall into socially and culturally stigmatized traps of representation that may further blunt the radical potential of the figure in question.

The banning of the film however, won’t add to the criticism of the film. It will unnecessarily inflate its status. It will also allow the discourse of justice for women to be most retrogressively usurped by the assorted ranks of nationalist moralisers.

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