Late in the new documentary To Kill a Tiger, a villager lobs a threat at its Canadian writer/director, Nisha Pahuja, and her crew of two: “Next time we could kill you.” The village is in Jharkhand, in eastern India. There had been a wedding the night before, and some of the villagers were still inebriated. But the threat was real.
Pahuja, who was born in New Delhi and moved to Toronto at age four, had been travelling back and forth to India for three years, filming a documentary about masculinity, “to understand what creates these ideas that men, and the Indian culture specifically, need to dominate and oppress women,” she said in a recent video interview.
But in that Jharkhand village, she discovered one man, Ranjit, who was doing something extraordinary given his culture and community: He was standing by his daughter, who had been raped and beaten at age 13 by three young men after a different wedding. Pahuja decided to narrow the focus of her film to him. (Today Ranjit’s daughter is older than 18, and has consented to her image and name being revealed in the documentary. For its promotion, however, she prefers to be called J.)
A rape is reported every 20 minutes in India, though an estimated 90 per cent go unreported. Only 30 per cent of accusations lead to convictions. To Kill a Tiger shows us why that is in thorough, dispassionate detail. Most of Ranjit’s neighbours – women, men and their ward and district chiefs – think J should marry one of her rapists to maintain peace in the village and to assuage what they believe is the shame she brought upon herself by staying at the wedding too late. They also believe that outside agitators – J’s attorneys, the Srijan Foundation for gender rights, and now the film crew – are making things worse.
Pahuja, 55, was mindful of how layered and sensitive Ranjit’s situation was. She had made other films in India, including The World Before Her (2012), which juxtaposed women competing to become Miss India with Hindu nationalists fighting for their beliefs (it won best Canadian feature at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival). “We needed to make sure the villagers didn’t feel we were taking sides,” she says.
In the doc, we witness meetings where villagers air their views; one includes the fathers of the accused. But as the case drags on, some villagers pressure Ranjit to back down – through emotional blackmail, bribes, threats of arson and murder – and their reaction to the film crew becomes increasingly hostile.
“I had many conversations with my sound recordist, who’s a woman, and my husband, who’s the director of photography,” Pahuja says. “What do we do when things erupt? Do we turn the cameras off and keep recording sound?” Still, the day it happened, she was “shocked and very afraid.”
We see the events unfold on screen. Pahuja is filming J at home as she rehearses her testimony for her imminent court appearance. Just outside their open door, a male villager paces, loudly complaining about the film crew. People begin to gather, including the father of one of the accused. Soon there are 20, then 50. The din of their voices rises ominously.
“We turned off all the equipment, even sound, and went outside,” Pahuja says. “Everyone was angry, men and women, but we were having a rational conversation, making progress” – until a few determined men pushed forward. The women nearest the crew warned Pahuja to “get out now.” They formed a human cordon and got the crew to their car.
“One man, I’ll never forget it, he was so vicious, I could feel his rage,” Pahuja says. “He came this close” – she holds a hand to her nose. “They were holding him back. I could feel his spittle on my face.” She continued to film elsewhere, but never returned to the village.
“I felt so guilty, such a sense of responsibility and shame,” she says now. “I’ve spent so much time in India, and the thing India teaches you is how complex systems are there. How complex life is, how grey, how nothing is black and white.
“It’s a sophisticated ecosystem, the way villages operate there – it’s about survival. We had affected that ecosystem. It’s not that we weren’t doing the right thing, morally and ethically. It’s right to struggle for justice, and to be there for an exceptional family who needed support. But I was also acutely conscious of the impact we were having. Doing the right thing – there’s a price.”
Few of the attitudes espoused in To Kill a Tiger surprised Pahuja: “Everything is stacked against women in India. The culture, the legal system, all the systems work together to oppress women.” But one judge – the first of two who heard J’s case – shocked even her. “He told me he didn’t believe J because she was 13,” she says. “He said at that age, a girl was either asking for it or in a relationship with one of the boys. That shook me. What an uphill battle this is, if even the judge trying the case has that attitude.” (I mention a few judges who’ve said similar things here in Canada, and we share a grimace.)
To Kill a Tiger is being released in theatres across Canada this month through the National Film Board, starting Feb. 10 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Pahuja is also planning a release in India, in conjunction with women’s rights groups and NGOs. That’s partly why J’s identity is being kept private: so the film won’t be mired in controversy before it can be seen there. For now, J and her family are doing well. She’s studying to be a policewoman.
“What makes Ranjit so remarkable, and what I realized in spending all this time on this subject, is that patriarchy is a prison for all of us,” Pahuja says. “It’s not just women who suffer under it; it’s also men. The cost is to their humanity and their goodness. When your humanity is eroded, though you might not understand that consciously, you pay a price.” But as Ranjit demonstrates, the price a man pays to reject that prison can be worth it.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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