Jharkhand is not a place that receives much attention from the western media. A landlocked state in Eastern India, it has 33 million residents. That ranks far behind better-known behemoths such as Uttar Pradesh (200 million), Maharashtra (112 million), and West Bengal (91 million).
But Jharkhand is the setting for an extraordinary documentary by Toronto filmmaker Nisha Pahuja. To Kill a Tiger tells the story of one family’s decision to pursue justice after the eldest daughter was gang-raped at the age of 13 following a wedding party.
Over Zoom, Pahuja likens the father, a poor farmer named Ranjit, to the Greek mythological figure who constantly pushes a boulder up a hill.
“He kind of reminds us, in some sense, of how indomitable the human spirit is,” Pahuja says. “And how this idea of what is right and what is just and what is good is: a) worth fighting for and, b) is almost our birthright as human beings.
“It’s equality and justice,” she continues. “It’s part of our human inheritance. And I love the fact that he just wouldn’t stop.”
At one point in the film, Ranjit states matter-of-factly that he’s lived his life, so now he must live for his children and fight to the end. He persists in the face of threats from neighbours in his village. Some think that his daughter should marry one of her rapists to “remove the stain” on her.
Pahuja points out that in rural villages like this, there’s a “particular ecosystem” that evolved. Moreover, this community-based culture has—through the centuries—been a means of economic and social survival.
Watch the trailer for To Kill a Tiger.
Village life reinforces misogyny in India
Even though the filmmaker speaks Hindi fluently and had many Indian-born members in her crew, they were still perceived as meddlesome outsiders.
“As it became clear that the father wasn’t going to back down and he was going to continue this pursuit of justice, the villagers became angrier and angrier,” she says. “So, our presence created tension, without a doubt.”
The daughter, whom Pancouver is identifying as “J” to protect her privacy, is equally compelling. Pahuja describes her as “the moral centre for the film” in how she stands up for herself.
J retains her integrity even as a ward politician, Abdul Mutalik, bluntly declares on-camera that girls bear some responsibility for being raped because of the way they dress and behave. A father of one of the rapists actually admits on-camera that his son is guilty. Yet that same politician maintains that the most important consideration is retaining peace and harmony in the community.
Scenes like this are truly astounding. And they were only possible because of the amount of time that Pahuja’s team put into this project. She says that she and her husband, cinematographer Mrinal Desai, are not “run-and-gun shooters”. She adds that the sound recordist, Anita Kushwaha, shows similar restraint.
“You wait for something magical to happen, whether it’s the light or whether it’s something that somebody does,” Pahuja says. “We have a lot of patience in the field. I think that’s partly why some of the images are so beautiful.”
Filmmaking presented ethical dilemma
It actually took more than three-and-a-half years to film To Kill a Tiger, even though Ranjit’s story unfolded over just 14 months.
That’s because Pahuja initially planned to make a film about Indian masculinity. She was following an activist, Mahendra Kumar, with an NGO called the Centre for Health and Social Justice.
“They realized about 25 years ago that the only way to have real equality in India for women is if the country started to address the ideas around masculinity and how men see themselves,” Pahuja explains.
The organization launched grassroots programs to work with men and boys in villages over several years. Kumar led Pahuja to Jharkhand, where she met Ranjit and heard about his daughter.
Pahuja acknowledges that she faced a challenging ethical dilemma in telling the story of the gang rape of a minor. As the writer and director, she didn’t want to re-traumatize the girl. Therefore, Pahuja avoided talking to J about what happened or how J felt about it.
Then there was a question over how J should be represented. Pahuja tried several options, including filming only the side of her face. The director also looked at using animation to keep J’s identity secret.
In addition, Pahuja experimented with a blurring effect. She even worked with an actor to replace J’s face.
“Everything that we tried just felt wrong,” Pahuja says.
Finally, after J had turned 18 and became an adult, Pahuja asked if she would consider revealing herself. J replied that she first wanted to see the film, which she watched with her parents.
“They love it and they said ‘yes’. They wanted to celebrate her courage,” the filmmaker says. “It was incredible.”
Sexual violence linked to patriarchy
Pahuja says the most satisfying aspect of the project was working with the creative team putting together the film, which was co-produced by Notice Pictures and the National Film Board of Canada. The editing alone took just over three years.
As for the bigger picture, sexual violence in India attracted massive international attention following a high-profile gang rape in Delhi in 2012. It’s remained in the news since then within India.
Pahuja’s film points out that every 20 minutes, a girl or woman is raped in India.
“It definitely has gotten so much attention after the Delhi gang rape,” she says. “But I don’t see the numbers going down.”
She attributes this to a “culture of misogyny and entitlement and male superiority” in the country. According to her, it’s so deeply entrenched because boys have traditionally guaranteed a family’s continuation and economic survival.
Moreover, Pahuja thinks that the Bollywood film industry reinforces these attitudes. This is notwithstanding the efforts of certain individuals, like superstar actor-producer Aamir Khan, to blow the whistle.
“I don’t see this situation actually resolving itself until men find a new way of being—until there’s a new definition of what it means to be male,” Pahuja says.
To Kill a Tiger will have its B.C. premiere on February 9 at the Victoria Film Festival. The film opens in Vancouver on February 10 at the VIFF Centre. It was voted best documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and Pahuja was awarded the DOC Vanguard Award by the DOC Institute of Canada. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.