Here’s the bald truth, Leslee Udwin: Your controversial documentary is no “gift” to India. If anything, it’s a whopping big gift to yourself! Not too many people had heard of Leslee Udwin till India’s Daughter blew up in our faces. Yes, we handled the whole thing badly. Yes, the ban was entirely unnecessary. Yes, the Indian media went into overdrive. But hey, the last one to be complaining should be you, my dear Leslee! Overnight, you were all over the news. So, will you stop going on and on about this ‘selfless’ act that saw you, mother of two, spend two years suffering in a hostile environment, enduring all manner of desi discomforts , all because you wanted to give India an invaluable present! That’s utter rubbish. The film was made by you for yourself. Your gamble has paid off. You are famous. Enjoy the spotlight, by all means. But spare us the sermons.
Try this script — it’s pretty straightforward. You are a commercial documentary filmmaker in search of original and interesting subjects. That does not make you unique in the least. You belong to a large international tribe. All of you travel the world searching for subjects to sell. When the horrific Nirbhaya rape took place in Delhi, you sensed a great opportunity. Yes, of course you were deeply disturbed. Yes, of course you felt a strong sense of outrage. So did millions all over Planet Earth. Nobody thought of making a documentary on the subject at that point — you did! Brilliant! You came up with a great idea. You persevered. You raised the finance. You packed your bags and came to India. That’s what documentary filmmakers do for a living. Nothing new in any of this. But here’s the thing. Others may have thought of making a similar film — but you got it done. Period. More importantly, it was a business risk you took. That’s not a crime either — it’s your bread and butter! And as an ambitious filmmaker, you naturally wanted the biggest bang for your buck. Which is also fine. That’s how the business works. What stopped someone else from India/Sweden/Australia/Outer Mongolia from tackling the same subject? You beat everybody else to it — good for you! That’s where it should have ended. But didn’t.
Why? What we are dealing with is a bunch of really nasty developments. Nothing seems to add up. The documentary, per se, is not particularly impressive. Most would call it pretty shoddy. But this isn’t about your talent or competence as a filmmaker, it is about the access you were given. An access your detractors feel you misused. Several articles have questioned your motives. Let me say these are pretty obvious — your motives were unashamedly, unambiguously commercial. Every filmmaker works for awards and recognition. Why not be upfront about this, and stop whining? The silly ban has worked for you big time. In terms of marketing, you couldn’t have asked for more. I mean, come on… endorsements from Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto? Your documentary has been elevated into a global cause celebre. You can probably feed off it till you stumble upon another tragedy and milk its potential. For the sake of your art, of course.
Frankly, all this doesn’t make you sound like a very nice person, Leslee. And that’s a pity. You are safely out of the country. But some of the puzzled and hurt people featured in your film are feeling terribly let down, even betrayed. They trusted you, and you trampled on their trust. Blame it on hyper sensitivities, if you wish. Yes, we Indians are thinskinned. So? And thank you, very much, but we also possess our own mirrors. The most awful aspect of the mess is how twisted and strident the debates have become. There have been attempts to make it a racial issue. I don’t buy that for a minute. There are also those wondering why nobody makes ‘America’s Daughter’ or ‘Denmark’s Daughter’, implying there is a huge international conspiracy to tarnish India’s image. Again, I don’t agree. Why doesn’t an Indian documentary maker try and find an equally powerful subject to film in Finland, for example? Every country has its quota of shameful incidents. You, Leslee were fascinated by one such that took place in India. That’s all.
Should we be saying, ‘Thank you, Leslee?’ Why not? Sometimes, an outsider’s viewpoint can be the required trigger leading to reform and change. Of course, you edited the ghastly ‘truth’ to suit your objectives. That’s your prerogative. What we do about you and those truths — is ours.