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Director Leslee Udwin speaks from the heart about India’s Daughter


Gurdeep Pandher: Thank you so much Leslee for agreeing to talk to me for this interview! Thank you so much!
Leslee Udwin: It is a pleasure and Sat Shri Akaal!

Gurdeep Pandher: Sat Shri Akaal! Before I start learning more about your documentary, please let me know little bit background about your previous works as an independent film maker!
Leslee Udwin: Okay, I started off making campaigning documentary dramas for television and first film I made was called Who Bombed Birmingham starring John Hurt. It was for Granada and HBO. It was a film that campaigned for the release of six innocent Irishmen who had been wrongfully imprisoned in one of the biggest miscarriages of justices in Britain and had been imprisoned for 17 years, and my film helped to release these men from prison.

The very first film I ever made taught me that film is an incredibly powerful medium that can actually change things in the world. That’s a lesson that I carried forward. Then I made another film which campaigned for tenants rights which was about a landlord who harassed, in fact this was a real story that had happened to me, and I had made a television screen too for BBC.

Then I moved into feature films. My first feature film was called East is East, and it is a wonderful substantial comedy drama about cross cultural relations and cultural identity, the seven children of a Pakistani man who settled in England came as a migrant laborer to earn money and send it back home to his family in Punjab. He settled in England. Married an English woman and had these seven kids were caught between the two cultures, the British culture and the Pakistani culture.

The lead in that film, the father George Khan was placed by Om Puri. It was really through Om Puri that I guess my love affair with India began because he was such a dignified and extraordinary man and then I started visiting him in India. We became very close friends as a result of what we were so closely together. Then I kept sent to India by the British Film Council, The British Council variously to do seminars with writers in India and talk about how independent films could crossover, because East is East was an incredibly successful film. It won the British Oscar, the BAFTA and several other awards worldwide and did very well.

Then, I continued to make some more feature films including the sequel to East is East called West is West which I actually shot in the Punjab. We based ourselves in Chandigarh and we shot Punjab for Pakistan, and I lived there for six months amongst the extraordinary generous and welcoming and wonderful Punjabi people.

Jyoti Singh's photo from childhood | Photo: Leslee Udwin
Jyoti Singh’s photo from her childhood | Photo: Leslee Udwin

Gurdeep Pandher: To make a documentary like India’s Daughter it was a very big and risky project, no doubt, how was idea of making this documentary formed. What were main factors behind that?
Leslee Udwin: I was moved to make this documentary India’s Daughter because I was absolutely bowed over with respect, with admiration and with gratitude to the Indian men and woman who went out on the streets to protest in response to this particular horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh, and it wasn’t the rape that took me there. It was the protest. It was knowing that there was incredible optimism and hope for change and people were demanding change and it seemed to me sitting across the other side of the world that these people are actually out there protesting for my rights as a woman, for autonomy and respect for women.

I felt moved by this to go to India, lend my energies to amplify their voices and trying for change around the world. The other impulse I had was because I went inspired by the protests I still decided that I would be looking at the issue of rape and why men rape through the prism of this particular case because the protests were in response to this particular case. I resolved really to speak to rapists because it seemed to me to understand them is absolutely crucial if you want to change them.

You have to know what the mindset is. You have to go to the source of the action and find out what has it, what view do they have of women that allows them to behave with such uncivilized flagrant breach of any kind of civilized conduct and treat woman in this appalling way so that was I suppose the other impulse, and that is why I resolved to interview the rapists in this case.

Gurdeep Pandher: How long did it take for you to complete the whole documentary starting from inspiration to the final product?
Leslee Udwin: Two years until I finished the film and delivered the film, two years. I took the decision to make it probably around Christmas of 2012, about a week to 10 days into the protests when I saw this protestors not just going out and protesting but actually continuing through day after day and then I saw the protest tip into riots. I mean it felt like civil war could ensue. The passion was so great, and the numbers were so unprecedented.

It was so sustained that was I think the extraordinary thing about it. It went on for over a month and we have all seen inspiring protests in our time. Quite recently we watched the television and so there is astounding crowds who came out for freedom of expression in the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, and that was utterly inspiring to see people united around the cause with so much commitment and fervor and determination, but they did that for one day and the protest in India went on for over a month and that seemed to me to be extraordinary.

Gurdeep Pandher: It was indeed! You went to Tihar Jail. Tihar Jail in Delhi is the highest security prison in India. Was it easy to get the consent to interview people from there, so what was the whole process?
Leslee Udwin: It was very easy. It was surprisingly easy. I wrote a very impassioned letter to the director general. The director general happened to be a woman. That probably helped because I think that she understood from my letter that this was indeed in the public interest. It was an important thing to do. It was a documentary film that was seeking change, and she understood the imperative, the need to interview the rapists, and she agreed and it is almost as simple as that.

Gurdeep Pandher: In the jail, when we actually went to the jail so there was no problem accessing those people. Right?
Leslee Udwin: Absolutely none. I mean, I did first had to get the agreement of those convicted prisoners who I interviewed and I interviewed seven of them. Let me just make this clear in my mind, yes they were seven. Four who were not in any way allied to this particular case and three who were and on film I interviewed five. I did that over seven days. Mukesh I interviewed for three days, 16 hours, and in total I interviewed them all for about 31 hours.

Gurdeep Pandher: You had met and talked to a person who was convicted of brutal murder and rape. It clearly shows in your documentary that he has or those people they have no remorse or guilt of any action they did. After you finished your conversation, what were your own reflections on that?
Leslee Udwin: Well, I was absolutely appalled and shocked that there was no remorse because you would imagine even if somebody had so little respect, saw a woman of so little value felt that everyone was doing it so why shouldn’t they do it which is all true of what they told me were their reasons for raping in the case of Nirbhaya, for raping and dealing with her so brutally, teaching her a lesson as they put it.

In the case of the other four rapists who were not related to this case again very similar themes emerged. It is the mindset of the society. It is what you learn as a boy to think about a girl that step by step leads you as an adult to think you can do this.

Gurdeep Pandher: The most heart wrenching part of your documentary was watching stories from Jyoti’s parents and seeing their strong emotions. Please describe the whole atmosphere when you were with them as they spoke about those stories of their beloved daughter!

Jyoti Singh's parents Badri Singh and Asha Devi | Photo: Leslee Udwin
Jyoti Singh’s parents Badri Singh and Asha Devi | Photo: Leslee Udwin

Leslee Udwin: Well it was absolutely utterly heart breaking and again there were surprises. There were always surprises when you go with a certain set of expectations and then you meet the real people. It is always different. What was extraordinary to me was how stoical they were. How absolutely dignified they were in their grief. I mean the grief that they are still carrying because they have no closure. Day in day out they are having to live with an unresolved situation, and they were promised a fast track case.

Now the session’s court moved relatively quickly. I think it was nine months before the convictions and the sentencing were concluded. Then the high court dismissed the appeals again relatively quickly but the supreme court has not had a single day sitting on this case, and I think the supreme court action started in March of last year so it is year stuck in the supreme court, and we know that there is a massive backlog of cases, I think a 125 cases waiting in the supreme court, and they take the cases on a historic basis.

It is just appalling for those parents. Their pain is so palpable. It cracks the heart. It is also incredibly humbling because I sat there as a mother thinking if this had happened to my daughter I can’t believe that I would have this sort of forbearance, the sort of dignity that they have. I think I would be so attaintly angry. To make sense of it they see that she is actually healing the world through her sacrifice, and that gives some meaning to this utterly meaningless and atrocious, hate filled act that snatched their daughter away form them.

Their daughter was an incredibly special person, not that all daughters are to parents but she was the very main stay of their family. She was the glue that held them all together. They had utmost respect for her. She was just qualified as a doctor. She was about to make good on her promise that she would be taking care of the family. They themselves were a very poor family. The father worked as a loader at the airport, earned very little money and all of this hope was snatched away from them. They are also incredibly poetic particularly the father, very poetic in his expression. Remarkably intelligent, enlightened civilized people because they have withstood all their societal pressures, the same thoughts that are fed to those lawyers, those awful defense lawyers and the rapists and most people in that society, the same thoughts that are fed about the fact that you shouldn’t celebrate the birth of a girl. A girl is a burden. You shouldn’t educate a girl. The boy is who should educate and put your energies and support into. They rose above that.

They withstood all those pressures within the family, within the society and they allowed their girl to be educated and they supported that. They sold a piece of their ancestral land to ensure that she could gain her admission to medical college. There are extraordinary human beings.

Gurdeep Pandher: I saw poetic nature of her father when he was saying that now they are just like birds without wings. They can’t do anything. It was so much heart touching to hear those words. It is unfortunate that the government of India banned this documentary which should have been watched by everyone in India and around the world. I watched this video and this documentary has power to spark a thought provoking debate within the Indian society with regards to rape, social inequality and pros and cons of justice system, what do you want to say about that?

Leslee Udwin: The fact that they banned it, it is such a misguided terrible mistake. I am very confident that the court will later turn the ban and I hope that will be an end to it, because the ban has no reasonable or legal grounds to it. The ban was a knee jerk reaction by people who had not seen the documentary that is crucial distress. They could not have seen the documentary because at the time they banned it, I was there in Delhi cutting the India version of the film for NDTV and the film existed at that point only on one pen drive. That pen drive was with me in my purse, and unfortunately when this was brought to the attention of the home minister he must have know that I was in Delhi or his department must have known because I was giving interviews one after the other. I was very visibly being interviewed by the press in Delhi. All they had to do was call me in for questioning, and I would have happily and fully cooperated in answering their questions and explained to them.

Gurdeep Pandher: Do you have any clue or idea why this documentary was banned? Is this because of image issue government of India worried about?
Leslee Udwin: Well, I think it can ultimately only be an image issue. I think they reacted or it wasn’t this government, it was Congress government in that case. There was a similar reaction to the film Slumdog Millionaire. I think that there is a sense that is mis-praised that criticism means shame. The mark of a strong and mature democracy, even a young democracy, the mark of maturity and confidence in the democracy is allowing debate, allowing there to be discussion when things go wrong and when things are not as they should be in a country.

Now it seems that Prime Minister Modi has no problem telling his people on Independence Day, and this is exactly what he said that when you consider the question of rape in India, he said we Indians should hang our heads in shame. He said that. I didn’t say that. My documentary is not about India. My documentary is about a mindset that is prevalent the world over and the evidence for the fact that I was motivated to make a film about the issue globally is that I ended my film with these all important statistics from around the world of atrocities against the women of all various kinds not just rape.

That’s because having gone on to make a film about rape and about the incredibly admirable response to that rape of the Indian people, I discovered the insights that I believe led me to understand that rape was a very narrow question and actually real problem was why the patriarchal society which gives a certain set of learned attitudes to women, programs boys and girls in a particular way that leads to a lack of respect and atrocities against woman.

The minute that conclusion in the course of my inquiry was clear to me the film became about much more than just rape, and then the choices I made in the edit reflected that, and knowing that this is the problem the world over, I put those statistics at the end of the film so that no viewer at the end can be let off the hook and think, oh this happens to those people over there. It happens everywhere in every single country in the world, and I am currently traveling the world going from country to country.

I have been to Sweden. I have been to the US. I have been to Denmark. I am about to go back to the US, and this is what I am doing. I am campaigning around the world to try and use the documentary as a powerful tool for change everywhere. In a way it is a coincidence that those protests which inspired me happened in India about this case, because the truth is that if those protests had happened anywhere else in the world about any other atrocity against a woman, I would have gone to that country and made the film about that atrocity. That’s the truth.

Gurdeep Pandher: That’s indeed it is really a powerful tool for change. After the news of this documentary spread in India, were you ever threatened for making such a documentary there?
Leslee Udwin: No, I wasn’t threatened. There has been a lot of hate spieled out against me. It is sad that that happens. I mean I am old enough and mature enough to know that there are what my kids would call trolls everywhere. It is a great sadness the people should spend their energy on a hate campaign against me or spend their energy looking in the wrong direction.

I mean, even revered and respected feminists in small numbers but significant feminists who I very much admire and respect for all the great work they have been doing over decades in India, even they have been looking in the wrong direction and criticizing the title of the film. There is nothing wrong with criticism, but there is something wrong when you reject something that is so clearly a belief for change, a change that you have been working so hard for and then you somehow don’t focus on that big issues when it comes in a big huge tsunami.

It is not just a way that is being created here. It is utterly massive and of course the ban has made it bigger. The documentary itself, you must not forget, the documentary itself is so powerful and so shocking and so moving that that would have happened anyway. It has just been exaggerated by the ban as of course the minute you ban something you mean there is a controversy there is interest. It sensationalizes it in a sense.

I think that it is really sad that people are looking in the wrong direction. I mean, I can give you the example of Jaya Bachan who is not just by some revered member of society married to a very revered, loved, influential man in India, but is also an MP and a very educated woman. When you see her interviews about me she turns into some kind of gosh I mean I can hardly, it is a witch-hunt she has against me. She calls me gori with great disdain and complete lack of calm or reasonableness and you understand that this done something absolutely terrible to her psyche, it has disturbed her in such a way that, she is on a real tirade against me, and nowhere is she actually discussing the film, and the reason for that is that she hasn’t seen the film. She admits in these same interviews to not having seen the film and not wanting to see it, but I mean that’s just childish actually.

Gurdeep Pandher: The day of December 16, 2012, will remain one of the darkest days in India’s history. It was shocking to watch those two defense lawyers support the accused rapist action and used derogatory words towards the women, so what were your reflections towards those lawyers?
Leslee Udwin:  Well, you see many people have seen the documentary say that they are more shocked by what the lawyers said. Then by what the rapist says. To a large extent a lot of hysteria in terms of this negative response to this film has been about how dare you give a platform to a rapist to say such hateful things about woman, but if you actually look at what the rapist says about women it is pretty much the same as what politicians have stood up in parliament and said about women.

Gurdeep Pandher:  You were very brave to sit and listen to those heartbreaking stories from all people, all walks of people you went to. How did you manage to process all of the pain, crying, emotions coming from different type of people or did you manage to put everything together, it was really brave? I want to know more about this.
Leslee Udwin: Well, I think the truth is Gurdeep that probably I haven’t fully processed it yet. I mean, I have been on a journey that has not stopped for one day. I still now, what is the time now, it is half past midnight here that early for me because I sit and work till 5 a.m. I have got 1300 starred emails, not just in my inbox but the ones that I put exclamations against and that I have to answer. I have a backlog now of the 1300 of them.

I am travelling all the time. I am doing screenings. I am doing interviews. I am talking to people, encouraging film makers to make more documentaries in their countries so that this film starts a trend of doing that because it is really, really important to keep the conversation going. I am about to go to the UN for a number of meetings. I am about to go to the women in the world conference in New York, to a festival in Chicago where the film is being shown, to a screening in Atlanta. It is nonstop. It is relentless.

I can’t stop doing it because I am so utterly committed to this issue and especially at a time now when I see so many changes already having taken place and it is not even four weeks since the film was released, so I am way at the beginning of this campaign, and I suppose if I stop and process it at any stage and I haven’t had a day off since I started this process in well certainly since July 2013 because of course when I started conceiving of it in late December-January 2013 I was planning it. I was still at home in Copenhagen at that point, and I wasn’t working at this fury speed.

Without a doubt since June-July I have been at it utterly nonstop. I think processing it is going to take a lot of time. When I am processing it I mean processing the pain rather than the insights that I have gleaned from it. As I went long of course I have had explosions of depression and anguish but somehow I picked myself up and dust myself off and keep going with it because it is still important to break down over.

Gurdeep Pandher: What are your plans for the future? Do you want to create more documentaries like this from other parts of the world regarding social injustice?
Leslee Udwin: I certainly want to inspire other documentaries, and I have agreed so far with two people, one in America and one in the UK that I will exec produce for them. In other words I will advice them and point them in the right direction trying to help them fund their documentaries and advice them on the edit once they have shot their material.

I cannot put more of my time and life into making another documentary. It takes a long time. It takes the two years it took me. I have to campaign. Campaigning now with this film is more important than making another documentary because in a way you have to see the journey through. This film has every propensity to change people’s mindsets just by seeing it.

I will tell you one story, when I showed the film in Delhi in May 2014 when the film wasn’t nearly finished yet, and I just had my first cut of it and it was a long cut. It was 90 minutes long and I gathered together some of the people who I had interviewed in the documentary really to get their opinions and try to learn whether they felt that the documentary was well balanced, whether they had any ideas about how I could improve it. How they felt India would respond to the documentary.

I showed at a very small conference room in a hotel where I had hired the screen and the projector and part of the deal was that I got snacks for my 15 guests and there were three waiters in the room who were putting out the snacks just before the film was about to start, and I went up and asked them please to come back one and a half hours later and to do the snacks then, because I didn’t want the film to be disturbed by the cluttering of plates.

Then I took my seat and the film began and about 5 minutes later I happened to turn to the side and I saw that these waiters were rooted to the spot watching this film and they didn’t move for 90 minutes. At the end I went up in the lift with one of them with my credit card to go and pay the bill, and he was absolutely visibly shaken. He said to me very gently, he said, “Ma’am you have made a beautiful film, a heart touching film”.

I thanked him for saying that and said look what’s really important for me to know and please tell me the truth, will it make you think about how women are treated. How women are treated in your family, in your community, in your country. These are the exact words he said to me Gurdeep, he said, “Ma’am it surely will and I will surely change”. He was shaken when he said that, and he was utterly sincere.

The fact is that I know the film has the power to change people’s attitudes, to challenge their attitudes, to make them see things from the point of view of another, and I think everyone sees this documentary sees things from the point of view of Jyoti’s parents. They understand that loss, that pain, that life is given such a big value by the documentary whereas in the society it is not given much of a value because she is a girl.

I think it really challenges people in a particular way, and I think the way it challenges them most acutely is by reflecting to them things they know they are guilty of thinking.

Gurdeep Pandher: Yeah, that’s true. Thank you so much Leslee for talking straight from your heart. The whole conversation was so great. It was so beautiful! Your documentary is well done. It is great piece of realistic film making because we need real movies about real people of what’s happening in the society and we need to promote that type of work and thank you so much again for this interview!
Leslee Udwin: Well, I am thrilled that you say that, and I thank you for your support, and we must just keep on the conversation, keep talking about it, keeping stoking those files because really the time is now to change things for women. It has been far, far too long. We have dealt with slavery, but we haven’t dealt with women’s rights. We have to do that know. On that note, I think I will end with Chack De Fatte.

Gurdeep Pandher: Yes, Chack De Fatte!
Leslee Udwin: Love to meet you Gurdeep!