Why did Mukesh Singh do it?

What was the Tihar Jail inmate thinking when he consented to be interviewed by Leslee Udwin and the team behind the documentary India’s Daughter? Was Singh, one of the six men convicted for gang-raping a young woman in Delhi in 2012, trying to make a case that his death sentence should be dropped, especially since he insists on camera that he only drove the vehicle and didn’t participate in the ghastly attack that eventually claimed the life of the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern?

Was Singh somehow trying to exonerate his elder brother Ram, who was arrested along with him, and who allegedly killed himself in custody on March 11, 2013? Is he more manipulative than the filmmakers give him credit for, or merely resigned to his fate?

Since India’s Daughter doesn’t attempt to crawl inside Mukesh Singh’s head to understand him better, he remains opaque. Yet, Singh is undeniably the dark star of a well-assembled and sensitive but also unimaginative investigation of the gang-rape and its fallout. The rare access to Singh that was granted by the Tihar prison authorities lays bare his rancid views on women in general and the victim in particular. His thoughts are distressing enough to box the film into the category secretly (and not so secretly) coveted by filmmakers the world over: “harrowing”. Perhaps too harrowing for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which has debarred television networks from broadcasting the documentary in any form.

Not a documentary but an event

One of the grounds on which the film’s intended telecast on NDTV24x7 on March 8 has been stopped is the claim that by airing Singh’s statements, the media would be complicit in giving him a soapbox. The ministry feels that the “telecast of these excerpts appear to compromise the role of the media as the upholder of constitutional values as the fourth pillar of our democracy”. It has also stated a legal reason for preventing the telecast: . “...His appeal being sub-judice, this is also liable to be construed as interference with the due process of law.”

The ministry has been pilloried for the ban, and its decision will be discussed across the globe. A new, and potentially profitable, narrative has been built around the British Broadcasting Corporation co-production: India's Daughter is now the documentary that the Indian government doesn’t want the world to see. NDTV24x7, which has seen a potential hit slip out of its hands in a matter of days, has been screaming itself hoarse in protest, while Udwin, a British national, has lost no time in reminding the media that the ban is yet another blot on the Indian government’s already dubious record on creative freedom.

“I’m very frightened what’s going to happen next ‒ I predict the whole world will point fingers at India now,” she told NDTV. “It’s a tragedy ‒ you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

Right from the start, India’s Daughter has been billed as no mere documentary but that rare thing in the world of non-fiction film: an event. It was to have been broadcast simultaneously several countries on International Women’s Day, but the BBC took advantage of the uproar in India to advance the screening in the UK to March 4. According to the Guardian, a red-carpet screening has been planned in New York City on March 9, to be graced by the likes of actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto. This will mark the launch of a worldwide campaign for gender equality with the same title as the film.

True crime and sensationalism

India’s Daughter is sensationalist in its idea but not in its treatment, except for one sequence in which text on the screen informs us that a list of the grievous injuries inflicted on the victim was read out to Mukesh Singh. The camera stays on his face, waiting for an emotion or perhaps a tear or two, but nothing materialises.

This is a moment very dear to the true crime genre into which India’s Daughter occasionally slips. Truman Capote’s non-fiction book In Cold Blood is one of the more cerebral examples of a genre that thrives on voyeurism. India’s Daughter seems to want to follow in the footsteps of Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary about convicts on death row in America, and The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s stylised recreation of brutal anti-Communist attacks in Indonesia in the mid-fifties through interviews with men who executed their opponents.

Both films spin on the shock value inherent in watching convicted killers talk about their crimes, but they differ in their approach. Herzog is firmly opposed to capital punishment, but his documentaries and films have always been deeply interested in people living on the borders of social acceptability. The filmmaker’s politics are as clear as day, and his ability to balance his empathy for the killers’ victims with his interest in the motives of the perpetrators is a result of his vast filmmaking experience and his endless curiosity about the complexity of human nature.

The Act of Killing, which Herzog co-produced, goes for the jugular. Oppenheimer rounds up some of the men responsible for killing Indonesians thought to be communists between 1955 and ’66. The methods were gruesome – they included strangulation with wire. Oppenheimer gets his characters to re-enact their crimes. In the film, the characters' initial boasts give way to some kind of regret. Widely praised for its excavation of the psychology behind the state-encouraged killings, The Act of Killing represents the visceral power of documentary filmmaking, as well as the manipulative abilities.

All too human

India’s Daughter does not replicate the strategy adopted by The Act of Killing. Instead, it assembles information and stories that have circulated in the national media ever since the crime. It revisits the hellish slums in which the convicts lived, the agony of the victim’s parents, and the despair of the families of some of the five men and the juvenile convicted in the case.

There are also interviews with women’s rights activist and former judges, as well as two damning conversations with the rapists' defence lawyers, who echo Mukesh Singh’s views of women as meek and submissive creatures who should be seen, not heard (but certainly not on a Delhi street at night). All of these strands have been depicted before, but gain greater force since they have been strung together in one piece.

Yet, it is Singh’s testimony that makes India’s Daughter stand apart from similar television shows on the subject. The gang-rape is reconstructed entirely through his statements, and we only have his version of how exactly the crime unfolded. Is it possible for viewers to separate Singh’s utterances about women from the possibility that he might just be advancing a survival strategy to save his neck?

The best judge of what India’s Daughter achieves should be its intended television audience. But it is hard to ignore the fact that unlike the characters in Into the Abyss, who had exhausted their final appeals, or the swaggering and unpunished murderers in The Act of Killing, Singh isn’t yet done with the legal system. He and the other convicts still have the opportunity to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court and the President of India.

India’s Daughter might reinforce public opinion that Mukesh Singh and his cohorts are monsters, but it also emphasises his ordinariness. The documentary makes him appear all too human, a tragic aberration rather than the devil’s spawn. The film is titled India’s Daughter, but it is also about one of India’s sons.