The New Indian Film Addressing The Country’s Rape Problem

Photo: Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star/Getty Images.
Deepa Mehta is a Punjabi-Canadian filmmaker most famous for her 2012 adaptation of Salman Rushdie's novel, Midnight's Children. Along with that, she's directed a dozen other films, many of which are set in her native India. The latest of these is Anatomy of Violence, a work of documentary-fiction which takes as its focus the notorious gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a bus in New Delhi back in 2012. Instead of dwelling on the crime itself, Mehta explores the lives of the rapists, ultimately asking what it was that led them to commit such a heinous crime. The resultant film is slow, with an improvised feel, and is at times difficult to watch. As it tours international film festivals, Mehta hopes it will shine a new light on the ongoing problem of gang rape in India, although she's keen to point out that gang rape is universal. To find out more about Mehta's filmmaking practice, and why she chose to take on such a difficult subject matter for her latest film, we sat down with her at Reykjavik International Film Festival, where Anatomy of Violence was showing.
Where were you when you heard about Jyoti’s story?
I was in Delhi when I heard about Jyoti. I remember waking up in the morning and the news being filled with it and being totally horrified. One feels violated, angry and furious that the system had let the bus go through six police posts without stopping it. It went round and round Delhi. How did that outrage turn into the decision to make a film on this topic?
Gang rape happens everywhere in the world; it happens in India and it happens here in Iceland. The thing about gang rape and rape is that it knows no boundary, no colour, no class, no caste, no country. It’s got something to do with our society and culture as humans. That made me really upset. I did not decide to do a film on it. It took about two years until somebody approached me and said, 'How would you feel about doing a film on what happened?' and I said: 'Absolutely not... I'm not interested in doing a film that re-victimises the the victim.' But I had been very interested in trying to understand – or perhaps get a glimpse of – the word of the rapists; who were these men, where did they come from, what happens in a society that lets men like these be nurtured? I think that’s a much bigger question than pointing fingers.
The film shows the individual backstories of the rapists – are these real or imagined?
It’s not a real story, it’s fictional. We did a lot of research and had a broad idea; I knew that one of the men was instrumental in getting his pregnant mother from a small village to a hospital when he was seven or eight years old, for example. There were just glimpses into their lives, and we took that and left it to the imagination of the actors. This form is called cinéma-vérité, or documentary drama, because you have a mixture of both. There was a strong context and then, within that, the actors improvise what they think would be a traumatic moment in the life of the rapist.
The production of the film is very basic. Were you a small crew and was it intentional to have it look low budget?
It was purposeful. I wanted it to look very raw. I felt it doesn’t need distractions. It didn’t need to have smooth camera movements or be well lit or for the actors go through makeup and hair – the thought is ridiculous... that these men would stop and have someone do their hair and makeup, or that there'd be a camera person who says 'you hit your mark now', or there be music. It wasn’t purposeful to shake the camera but you follow a subject and unless you stop and start it's not going to be smooth movements. It didn’t need sunsets or panorama, it just needed to hit you in the gut.

Some sexual assaults are shown – not the mai
n one on the bus but other incidents – was there conscious decision on what to include and what not to include?
Yes, absolutely. I didn’t go to set one day and say: 'Let's make a film.' You have to be really organised to make a film that’s improvisational. Like I said earlier though, the film wasn’t about the rape, it was about what makes a rapist and I had no desire at all to show the rape and re-victimise the victim. It would be terrible. This is what I find scary – that the violation of a woman's body could somehow be entertaining. What kind of society is it that rapes a woman and puts it online? That’s like a triple violation because it doesn’t stop. Every time someone watches it it's like it happens again. Which is why I didn’t want to show the rape in the film.
Did making Anatomy of Violence five you get a better understanding of what makes someone commit rape?
I got some understanding – it’s not rocket science what I learnt but it hit home because it was an experience, not just a theory. Seeing it re-enacted, explored... I realised it’s a problem that has to do with the way we as a society think. It has to do with patriarchy, misogyny and power play. It has to do with centuries of training, centuries of saying that a woman’s not worth it. Forget the glass ceiling – we are being treated like animals, commodified and objectified. And there's a disconnect. Because these men are thinking, 'It's not happening to my sister, to my daughter, to my wife – but I can do it to someone else's.'
Gang rape still a huge problem in india – has anything improved since Jyoti's case?
The figures for rape in India are outstanding, but somehow that rape really galvanised people – both men and women. It was so brutal. It was an assault on everything we'd been brought up with as human beings and Indians. It was such an outrage when it happened that people thought 'we have to do something about the rape laws'. There was a committee called the Virma Committee that tightened these laws. But the actual cases of rape reported doubled after this. So, yes, some of the laws were changed but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference. It’s at least a step, but you have to change the problem at the root. You have to change the idea that women need men's help, or that the female child is not wanted. In India it's seen that a female child will not look after ageing parents the way that a son will, so they are seen as having less worth. This is real thinking that we all have to work to change.
Another film about Jyoti's case – India's Daughter – was banned by the Indian government – do you think Anatomy of Violence will meet a similar reception? Is it going to be shown in India?
It's been screened in India at the Mumbai Film Festival. So at least it's going to be out there. People can go see it. It’s a pity that India's Daughter was banned. I think it had a lot to do with the fact it was sub-judicious; the case [Jyoti's cse] was still in trial [when the film was released]. I've had my films banned in India at the drop of the hat, so one doesn’t know. If it had to be banned, I think the censor wouldn’t let it go through and be screened at the festival, so hopefully it will be OK. Let’s see what happens.
Do you think the film can change anything?
I don’t know if it can engineer social change but the idea of making the film was to start a dialogue. The film was just shown at Toronto Film Festival and it was fascinating to see the number of people talking about rape – and not the victims but the perpetrators. What I wanted was to see was how we as a society are complicit in making the monsters. Nobody is born a monster. This person is not evil. So how do they become who they are? If we ask those questions then I think we all start taking responsibility.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series