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Leslee Udwin: Making India's daughter

Leslee Udwin: Making India's daughter

Filmmaker and Plan ambassador Leslee Udwin is the creator of India’s Daughter, a powerful documentary recounting the story and aftermath of the gang rape and murder of 23-year-old student, Jyoti Singh in Delhi, India in 2012.

The film took two years to make. In that time, Leslee captured the testimonies of Jyoti’s mother, father and friends, as well as key figures in the case such as the defence lawyers of the accused. Chillingly, she also spent 31 hours interviewing convicted rapists in Tihar Jail, including those responsible for Jyoti’s rape and murder.

India's daughter director Leslee Udwin with Meryl Streep at the film's NYC Premiere
Leslee Udwin (r) with Meryl Streep at the film's New York premiere

Why did you make this film?

What impelled, or more accurately compelled, me to leave my family and go to Delhi to make the film about Jyoti Singh, was not the rape itself, nor the horror of it. It was what followed the rape.

Starting on the day after the rape, and for over a month, ordinary men and women came out onto the streets of India’s cities in unprecedented numbers to protest. They braved a freezing December and a ferocious government crackdown of water canons, lathi [baton] charges, and teargas shells. Their courage and determination to be heard was extraordinarily inspiring.

There was something momentous about their presence and perseverance – reminiscent to me of the crowds that had thronged Tahrir Square – a gathering of civil society that demanded a conversation that was long overdue.

It occurred to me that, for all its appalling record of violence against women and relentless rapes, here was India leading the world by example. I couldn’t recall another country, in my lifetime, standing up with such tenacity for women, for me.  And I knew at once that I simply had to use whatever talents and skills I had, to amplify their cries of “enough is enough!” which were reverberating across the whole world thanks to a media which must have felt the same spinal shivers as I had done.

What was unique about the Jyoti Singh case?

What appeared to ‘distinguish’ this particular gang rape was the gruesome detail of the girl’s massive internal injuries [in the film, one of the doctors who cared for Jyoti comments that they “didn’t know which parts to join”].

Of the six men who had committed this unspeakable crime, one allegedly committed suicide during the trial, one was a juvenile, sentenced to three years in a special home (the maximum sentence for a “juvenile in conflict with law”), while the remaining four were sentenced to death by hanging. The trial judge had given this particularly harsh quantum of punishment because the case fell into “rarest of rare categories”.

What did you aim to find out when making the film?

My first pressing questions were tightly focused: “why do men rape” and “why does violent rape happen so frequently”?

I desperately wanted to get this answer from rapists themselves. I had a friend visiting from India at the time, and when I told her of my plans, she stopped my heart by casually mentioning that her boyfriend knew the Director General of Delhi Prisons. I wrote an impassioned letter to the DG fortified by the fact that she was a woman herself, and was overwhelmed with relief when she agreed to give access for filming convicted rapists in Tihar Jail – the same jail that held Jyoti Singh’s rapists.

I hurriedly arranged a meeting with Nick Fraser, head of BBC’s Storyville. He recognized the pressing importance of this story and was amazingly supportive.

What was it like to meet those rapists?

My encounter with the rapists, which lasted for 31 hours, via interviews conducted over seven days, left me feeling like my soul had been dipped in tar, and there were no cleaning agents in the world that could remove the indelible stain.

One of the rapists I interviewed, Gaurav, had raped a 5-year-old girl. I spent 3 hours filming his interview as he recounted in explicit detail how he had pulled her panties off but left her dress on, muffled her screams with his big hand, but left her nose free to breathe.

He described, in vivid detail, the child’s huge terrified eyes and casually opined that “she didn’t even now what was being inserted”. He was sitting, through the interview, and had a half-smile playing on his lips throughout – his nervousness in the presence of a camera, perhaps.

At one point I asked him to tell me how tall she was. He stood up, and with his eerie half smile indicated a height around his knees. When I asked him how he could cross the line from imagining what he wanted to do, to actually doing it – given her height, her eyes, her screams – he looked at me as though I was crazy for even asking the question and said: "She was a beggar girl. Her life was of no value".

And can you describe coming face to face with one of Jyoti’s killers?

Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus, described every detail of what happened during and after the incident. He refuted the prosecution version of events that the driver was changed, and maintained that he had not left the driver’s seat, and it was only the other five men who had raped and attacked the girl.

He did however fully accept that he deserves to be punished, but not to the degree of a death sentence. He chilled me to the bone by saying: "The death sentence will make things much worse for women and girls. Before they used to rape and leave the girl – she won’t tell anybody. Now when they rape … straight away they’ll kill the girl. Death".

He showed no remorse. Not for one minute during the 16 hours of interview. He kept expressing bewilderment at why they [Jyoti’s rapists] were being made such a fuss of when everyone is at it. I had the long and shocking list of injuries Jyoti had sustained, read out to him. I described the pain and anguish of his mother whose tears had fallen on me, when I tried to console her during my interview with her. I told him how she had got on a bus with a frighteningly high temperature, from her village in Rajasthan, to make the several hours journey to visit him and ensure he consented to the interview.  I tried, really hard, to search for a glimmer of regret. There was none.

Many of my questions were designed to understand how the rapists saw women. Mukesh gave various telling answers. "Everyone wants to have a son, they consider a girl bad, as she will bring shame to the family, if something happens to her", he said.

Other opinions were equally insightful. "A good girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night"; "Hardly 10% / 20% of women are good”; “a girl shouldn’t fight back when raped"; “boy and girl are not equal. House is meant for girls…they should stay home and take care of household jobs".

He justified his brother’s and friends’ actions of beating and raping Jyoti by pointing to the girl’s culpability – "what was she doing roaming around with a boy so late at night?” and explained that they “had a right to teach them a lesson".

What were your impressions of these men?

The media had prepared me for meeting monsters. Psychopaths. The truth was far more chilling. These were ordinary, apparently normal and certainly unremarkable men. The horrifying details of the rape – the pulling out of Jyoti’s intestines with bare hands, had led me to expect deranged monsters. It would be easier to process this heinous crime if they were monsters, and just the rotten apples in the barrel, aberrant in nature. Perhaps then, those of us who believe that capital punishment serves a purpose, and I am not amongst them, could wring their hands in relief when they hang. For me the truth couldn’t be further from this – and perhaps their hanging will even mask the real problem, which is that these men are not the disease, they are the symptoms.

What’s the key message of India’s Daughter?

It is our society and our shared culture, when it comes to attitudes to women that are responsible for these men and for their actions. In other words these offences against women are a part of the story, but the full story starts with a girl not being as welcome as a boy, from birth. When sweets are distributed at the birth of a boy, but not of a girl. When the boy child is nourished more than the girl, when a girl’s movements are restricted and her freedoms and choices are curtailed, when she is sent as a domestic slave to her husband’s home.

If a girl is accorded no value, if a girl is worth less than boy, then it stands to reason there will be men who believe they can do what they like with them.

Gender inequality is the primary tumour and rape, trafficking, child marriage, female foeticide, honour killings, etc. are simply the metastases. And in India the problem is not lack of laws, it’s implementation of them. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution confers absolute equal rights on women. The giving of dowry is a legal offence, but all families maintain the custom nonetheless. Until and unless the mindset changes, the cancer will thrive and continue to spread.

What challenges did you face while making the film?

As is often the case with extremely challenging endeavours where the human stakes are high, the main struggle was the emotional and psychological toll the work imposed. When you look into the blackest recesses of the human heart, you cannot but be depressed and deeply disappointed.

I woke one morning on the shoot, wet from head to toe, bathed in sweat and fear and my heart knocking against my ribcage. This was a panic attack. I phoned home thinking my husband would answer, but my little daughter, Maya, did. She immediately sensed I was in trouble. And when I told her, in tears, that I was coming home because this was too big for me, the mountain was just too high to scale. She said: “Mummy, you can’t come home because I and my generation of girls is relying on you."

What carried me through, apart from Maya, was what had inspired me in the first place: the new thinkers, especially amongst the youth, in India who want change and are clamouring for it.

- Leslee Udwin

because I am a girl

our campaign fights against violence to women and girls

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