‘Don’t change the world: just change your corner of it’

The path to gender equality begins in the home, says Vibha Bakshi, director of the award-winning documentary Daughters of Mother India

In India, a rape occurs every 20 minutes. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 92 women are raped every day, a symptom of a violent malaise that infects both India’s teaming cities and its vast, remote countryside.

Jyoti Singh could have been another, anonymous statistic. On December 16th, 2012, while making her way home from a trip to the cinema with a male friend, the 23-year-old physiotherapy student was brutally gang-raped aboard a moving bus in India’s capital of Delhi. Thirteen days later, she died. Her murder triggered a global outcry and weeks of protests across the nation, laying bare all that is wrong with how India values its women and girls.

 “I watched this unfold,” says Vibha Bakshi, director of the award-winning documentary Daughters of Mother India, which captured the wave of fury that erupted on the streets after the attack. “People, for the first time, were united against this violence, and they said: “Enough. It is enough.”

This unprecedented response lies at the heart of Bakshi’s film, which not only aimed to document the aftermath of the attack, but to spur a national conversation around the causes of sexual assault against women, and to encourage change. Here, the business-journalist-turned-director speaks about the making of the film – her first from India - the path to gender equality, and why change begins with families.

The case of Jyoti Singh was not isolated, nor the most violent India has seen. Why do you think it caused such an outcry?

It triggered something. I was in Delhi at the time, and the response was extraordinary. I don’t believe any other country in the world would have reacted in this way. It was the middle of winter, and everyone was out: women, men, children, the young and old – it was astounding. 

I think, for the first time, people felt that this could happen to any one of us. In previous cases, we’ve seen people play the blame game. ‘Why was she out at 3am? Why was she wearing that outfit? I would never put myself in that situation.’ But none of that applied in this case. It was a young girl, trying to make a life for herself; it was a 9pm show, held in a big mall, and she was even escorted by a male friend. And yet she was still attacked.

It made people realise this could have been their daughter, their sister, their wife; and they were just united in their fury. They came out in the thousands and even when faced with police, and water canons, nobody moved. As I stood there, I knew I needed to document it.

What did you hope to achieve with this documentary?

This was a very, very personal journey because it was me who was searching for answers. I felt - as a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother - I needed to understand. I say this all the time, but Daughters of Mother India was a cry from my own conscience. But what began as a film grew into a movement, and I was overwhelmed by the response.

What surprised you during the filming?

I think realising that is that this is not an India issue: it is a global issue, and no one is sitting at the other side of the table. In the US, I filmed a campaign around domestic violence, and it was exactly the same story – just the characters were different. We are all in this together, and we have to unite to solve it. It doesn’t help to sensationalise the issue or to isolate certain groups: I wanted to make a responsible film, because this isn’t a fight we can afford to lose.

There was a lot of public anger towards the police force in the wake of the case, yet it plays a central role in your documentary. Was that deliberate?

The police played the most critical role. We were able to gain access to them, and I think that was key in making the film feel very different. I think what became clear to me is that the police are not the ‘other’. People see ‘us’ and ‘them’, but we are all part of the same society – and if society is biased, so too is its police force. Just as your neighbour might make a judgment if you come home at 3am, so might the police – and that was a revelation to me.

The police are a mirror image of society’s prejudices, only they are on the front line. So, as I say in all my talks, forget changing the police, it is us we need to change. Police officers are neither heroes nor villains: they are simply a reflection of us. And the female officer who leaves the command room at 4am when her shift is over, when she removes her uniform, she is as scared as me.

Also central to the film is the wider stigma around rape: you don’t focus only on the 2012 attack, but on other cases. How difficult were those scenes to film?

We highlighted the case of a 5-year-old girl who was gang-raped, and the trauma that the whole crew felt – we all suffered for her. At that time my children were 9 and 7, and I called my husband and said: “I am not brave enough to tell this story. I cannot do it.’ I couldn’t feel the ground beneath my feet. My husband said: “You cannot unsee what you’ve seen. The only closure we will get is when the film is completed and one life is saved.”

"Film opens the conversation. So the culpability of silence that occurs in a rape or molestation is broken"What was the initial response to the film within India?

The production rights to the film stayed with me, because I wanted to share it over as many networks as possible. We gave it to Viacom 18, which supported it with a simulcast release across 10 channels in seven languages. It was broadcast on a Sunday morning, which is absolutely prime time in India, and it was unprecedented. We were able to reach a much bigger and deeper segment of society than we anticipated.

In the police force, we’ve screened the film for 150,000 officers now, something that came about after I did a small showing at the National Police Academy. The film is also part of the curriculum in 200 schools across the country. This has become a movement and there are so many incredible people taking it forward – it’s critical that people feel as though they can be part of the solution.

How can film be used as a tool to encourage social change?

You cannot force change: people must want it. What film does, is it creates the atmosphere for dialogue. It opens the conversation. So the culpability of silence that occurs in a rape or molestation, which we have gotten so used to, is broken. In any kind of violence, the shame is always on us, on women – this sense that you will not only shame yourself, you will shame your family by speaking out. But by being able to speak about this issue, for people to feel they could open up following the film, it changed the narrative.

What is the answer to tackling violence against women? What is needed to make a difference for future generations in India?

We need to see a change in mindset, and in the way in which we raise our young men. The preference for a son is so strong that I think from the day a boy is born, he knows he is privileged. And when you grow up knowing that you are far superior to your sister, it breeds a sense of entitlement. You cannot change a man when he is 50, but you can absolutely mould their minds when they are young.

The root cause is the family, because families become society. So when people ask: ‘What needs to change?’ I say, don’t change the world: just change your corner of it. Change your family, because that act will ripple across society. It is the multiplication of social change.

"Unless men join the fight, gender equality will be a very long battle"How do you address this in your own family?

People who watched the film thought I was the mother of daughters. But I am the mother of two sons. I carry a deep sense of responsibility, because in how I raise my sons, I will know whether I am part of the problem or part of the solution.

Mothers have a very important part to play. These are conversations we have to have with our sons, and we are the best role models to do so.

What is your next film project?

I’m very excited because the sequel to Daughters of Mother India is ready, and this time, we speak only to men. The film is called ‘Crossing the fault lines’, and it should be released in the next three months. It is very much inspired by the UN movement that says unless men join the fight, gender equality will be a very long battle. We are hoping that when men see men like them standing up for change, they will be encouraged to join them.

We filmed the entire documentary in Haryana, which is the seat of patriarchy in India, and in that region we found the most incredible heroes. Incredible men, from the darkest corners of the state, who are going to change the narrative on equality. It makes clear that gender parity is not only a women’s issue: it affects all of us.

Among those we interviewed was a man from one of the most rural parts of Haryana, who had an arranged marriage to a survivor of gang rape. When she told him she was a rape survivor, she described herself as a “tainted woman”. But he said: “The shame is not hers, it is ours.” This is a man who has never left his village – but he is an example for the world to model. When you see that, you realise there is absolutely no excuse for the rest of us.

Vibha Bakshi will be speaking at the 19th Global WIL Economic Forum in Dubai on 25th and 26th October. For more details, click here.