‘Avanindra wanted money to give his interview and I refused point-blank’

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Filmmaker Leslee Udwin, director of the documentary India’s Daughter, a 60-minute investigation into the gangrape and murder case of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi in December 2012, is very busy these days.

In the United States currently, she is doing back to back interviews during the day and spending her nights not sleeping, but answering “hundreds of emails in support” that she is getting every day. She’s also overseeing the release of her film in other countries, and, of course, tackling allegations and court orders from India.

India’s Daughter landed in the middle of India’s outrage season. A foreigner, a woman had run away with the only scoop to be had on a story that every media house, especially television, was covering very personally. It threatened India’s reputation. Its rape secret was suddenly out. Social media was ablaze. Legal, moral, ethical issues were raised. Jail manuals were read. Lawyers sent petitions, feminists wrote out statements. The government imposed a ban on the interview of Mukesh Singh, the convicted rapist and killer who has appealed to the Supreme Court against his death sentence. And an advisory was issued to all TV channels not to broadcast the documentary. One TV channel reacted with #Nirbhayainsulted, another decided to switch off in protest.

But the allegations kept coming. The only eyewitness in the case called the documentary a “fake”, and a former co-producer called the film “an abominable portrayal of the issue”. We sent Udwin a list of 25 questions, seeking clarification on the charges. Leslee was “disappointed” by the questions. They were “all accusatory and put her in a dock to defend herself”, she said. After some emails and phone calls, she agreed to talk, at 3 am on Friday night-Saturday morning, on the condition that everything she says is printed.

Over one-and-a-half hours, she answered every question I put to her, except one..

Q: On Thursday, the Delhi High Court, while refusing to issue any direction on the two PILs that sought lifting of the “ban” on your documentary, noted, “Whether he (Mukesh Singh) has shown remorse or not would be considered at the time of his sentencing… media trials tend to influence the minds of judges… It may make his case, it may ruin his case and that of his co-accused… Judges are also people. We are not from outer space.” So do you stand corrected — on insisting that your documentary will have no impact on Mukesh’s appeal to the Supreme Court challenging his death sentence?

A: I don’t stand corrected. I have sought several opinions, I’ve had a number of opinions verbally, all of which concur with the two written opinions which I then commissioned from very, very senior Supreme Court, ex-Supreme Court judges, all of whom have concurred that there can be no prejudice, that as long as I put a disclaimer in the front of the film that effectively states that I am not there to influence, or intending to influence, the outcome of the appeals hearings in the Supreme Court, there can be no prejudice because, in fact, of course judges are human, nobody thinks they are not. Judges have very strict regulations as far as the evidence that they are allowed to admit into their thinking as they either uphold or dismiss the appeals. They are only allowed to take into account matters that are on record, matters that have been on record in the trial in the sessions court and in the high court.

Q: You are not revealing the names of the judges and lawyers whose opinion you sought, and who told you that Mukesh’s statements would not prejudice his case…

A: No. It would be wrong to do so. Any opinion from a client to a lawyer is a privileged document.

Q: Right. But…

It would be irresponsible and it would break trust if I did so. Anyone is more than welcome to pay the money that I paid to commission such opinions and to get such opinions.

Q: Avanindra Pandey, who was with the rape victim on December 16, 2012, and has… called the documentary a “fake”.

A: Yes, and has singled out Satendra, who the film says was the victim’s tutor.


Avanindra has said that he had never heard this name before. I wanted to ask you…

Well, that’s his problem, isn’t it. I mean… are you telling me Satendra doesn’t exist? I could give you his phone number, and you can phone him up and you can ask him. He was asked by the family in 2006, before Avanindra even knew the victim. He became a very, very close family friend. And you asked in your written question, I believe, how did I meet Satendra. The family introduced me to him.

I mean, what are we talking about? This is childish in the extreme. Is he really trying to have the world believe that I got actor in there, some imposter? This is a joke.

As far as the film being a fake is concerned, I can see where Avanindra is coming from. Avanindra has a film now that does not have his version of events in it. He has a film now that has only Mukesh, the driver of the bus, saying that he hid between the seats.

Now let me tell you, that I tried for over a year to get Avanindra to come on the documentary, to give us the interview. Avanindra wanted money to give his interview and I refused point blank. I have paid no one on this documentary, nor would have paid.

He has taken money for interviews, which I think is unconscionable and unacceptable. He has been recorded in a sting operation negotiating money for an interview. It’s immoral, it’s incorrect…

Q: How much money did he ask for?

A: I’m not prepared to go into details. I can only tell you, he asked for money, I refused.

Q: Anjali Bhushan, who was earlier the film’s co-producer, along with you, has claimed to the effect that you were a “collaborator” and that the film’s idea was originally hers. Is that correct?

A: That is a lie. It is a barefaced lie. I had the idea to make this documentary and I started working on it within days of seeing those protesters on the streets.

Anjali Bhushan was someone I had trusted, she was someone I was a mentor to… in May of 2013, when she came to Copenhagen, I told her about this documentary that I was preparing to go and make. And I mentioned to her that one of the things I was particularly obsessed with doing was to interview the rapists.

And at that point she said, “Oh my god! My boyfriend is like a godson to the DG of Tihar (Vimla Mehra). Maybe we can actually interview these rapists.” And I said, that’s amazing, that’s extraordinary. Let me write an impassioned letter, ask your boyfriend (Amit Khullar) if he would put it in front of the DG and that is how it happened, and that is how I got permission.

And I said to her, at that time, because I am a very generous, open person. I said, if you can actually manage to get me this access, I will bring you on board as an absolutely equal partner. Unfortuna-tely, what then ensued was a series of breaches of her contract — material and serial breaches, falsifying of accounts, incompetence in terms of the handling of the shoot and, also, blackmail. So I ended her contract. She can go to a court and claim unfair dismissal and let a court judge whether she breached the contract in the manner which I say she did or not.

Q: You say blackmail.

A: Yes, blackmail. And remember again, it was not I who cast the first stone. But I will not stand by and be defamed and have a pack of lies uttered against me and not defend myself.

Q: What was she blackmailing you about?

A: Well, clearly, she and her boyfriend had power in terms of their relationship with the DG. Basically, all this trouble about the prison permissions was caused by them. She was blackmailing me for Rs 10 lakh, £10,000.

Q: The Rs 10 lakh she was asking for was, just to clarify, not her fee, not a part of her payment for the film, not…

A: No, it was to bring back in line what she said were “disturbed prison permissions”, which they were not. The permissions were granted, they were solid, I had complied with every obligation on me and every condition that those permissions imposed. But what she tried to do was to destabilise the permissions by going to the DG and saying this film could end up being negative about India, you could get into problems, what you need is editorial control over this film. And that is when the prison actually started demanding editorial control.

Q: This rape case, as you say, is what brought you to India. It changed the discourse about women’s rights and safety in India. It brought the nation out on streets. It was very, very personal…

A: That’s what brought me to India, not the rape case, the protests.

Q: Apart from the legal issue, I wanted to ask you, can you understand, and I’m not talking about people like Anjali Bhushan, I’m asking about the boys and girls who were out on the streets, that they may find it very hard to listen to what Mukesh Singh says, the way the lawyers speak…

A: (Raising her voice) Why would you hide it? What Mukesh Singh says is what the society says, not only in India but around the world.

What Mukesh Singh says is that boys and girls are not equal. What Mukesh Singh says is that girls are meant for housework and house duties, and should not go out at night after a certain hour. Why hide that? That has to be highlighted. That is the opinion of society that has created Mukesh.

Spend the energy and effort in saving women, not hiding shame.

Q: You’ve said that you began this film with a narrow focus — to understand why men rape… (but) as you’ve said, that whatever Mukesh Singh says is already known, and it’s been said by politicians also. So, then, how does the film help you understand the psychology of men who turn rapists? I mean, what was new here that you learnt?

A: Well, for me, the biggest insight and the biggest learning curve of this film was the reversal of expectations.

When I went and met these rapists, I was expecting the monsters that the media has painted as monsters and had prepared me to meet psychopaths.

But they were shockingly, chillingly, apparently normal. We are responsible; society is responsible, for what we teach these men about the worth and the value of women…

This is a world problem. And that is why I hoped so much, with all my heart, and I still hope because Prime Minister Modi has still not come out with a statement about this film and I still hope he will because here’s how I see it, and I tell you there is not a day that passes and there’s not a night that I lie here trying to fall asleep that I do not think these very thoughts that I’m about to express to you now.

Q: Have you contacted the Prime Minister’s Office or have you written to him?

No, but I have turned to camera on so many interviews I cannot begin to tell you, and I have appealed to him. And I can only hope that he has seen one of those appeals.

Q: And you are hoping that he will watch the film and make a statement.

Absolutely, absolutely.

Q: Do you see how Mukesh Singh uses the film to do two things: One is to try and shift the focus back on girls and their behaviour — not just before, but also during rape — and to again and again deny that he raped the victim and shifts and assigns blame to others who were in the bus?

A: Now first of all, what you say is not accurate. He doesn’t again and again deny, he denies once. He did deny, in court, again and again. There’s no deviation from what is on record and now on the public record… that is what he said in court and he repeats it again. But he says it only once in the film.

Not more than once. So let’s just be accurate now in our journalism. He does not say it again and again. He says it once. Uses the film? He does not use the film. The Mukesh interview is probably about six or seven per cent of the whole film… it is only one small part of the film. And, uses the film to shift the blame on to girls? Society shifts the blame on to girls… It’s utterly illogical what you are saying, don’t you see it?

Q: Ummm

He is uttering what politicians have uttered, what Asaram Bapu has said, what religious leaders, political leaders, what mothers and fathers up and down the country have said, what society says. They shift the blame on to the girls, quite immorally and incorrectly and appallingly.

Q: You have said, on record, that “I myself have been raped.” Are you ready to talk?

A: I have given those details… by the way. I have spoken about it in detail in a number of interviews I have given here in the US… given that I was 18 or 19 when I was raped, and for 20 years, I told nobody about it… for 20 years I kept silent. And I can tell you during those 20 years I harboured a sense of responsibility, I harboured a sense of guilt and I was raped in South Africa… it’s not just in India that shame is meted out to girls… and I can tell you that in my experience, and I’m sure this is true of most girls and women who are raped, you think that that man, or those men, in my case it was one man, is going to kill you. And as though it’s not bad enough, to be violated in that way, to continue to live with the shock, and relive and dream about it, you have to have this additional burden to be made, somehow, to feel responsible — Did you act in the wrong way? Did you give the wrong signal? Were you wearing the wrong clothes? Society makes you think that. And it is utterly crucial we stop this sense of shame. As girl’s mother says in the film, the shame belongs with the perpetrator, not with the victim.

Q: I’m sorry, but I have to ask you this question. You never thought that unravelling the mind of rapists could begin with your own case? Why didn’t you make a personal docu…

A: Please, with the greatest, greatest respect to you, that is an impossible question to answer and I don’t understand why this question is necessary… When I saw a play reading of East is East, and decided to make a film of it, I totally identified that man, George Khan, whom Om Puri played in the film, was my father. That’s why I made that film. Nobody asked me why didn’t you make a film about your own father, and your own experience? We make the films we make as filmmakers. Why ask me why I haven’t made a film about that? It’s a nonsensical question.

Q: It’s a troubled area to go into, but I have to ask this — if, for example, I have been sexually abused, and I am writing something, I will bring my personal experience there and I think the material will be richer for it. That’s why I am asking you this question.

A: Well, let me tell you again, the reason I made this film was because of the hopeful protests, the clamour for change, that’s what I was responding to. And nobody came on to the streets because of my rape.

Q: OK. Alright.

A: I can only tell you the truth. I’m afraid I can’t give you convenient answers, but I say again, please, please, be a responsible woman and a responsible journalist and let us focus on the issue. What is the film teaching us?

Where do we take it from here? Because I’m sure you must feel as strongly as I do about wanting change for women the world over. I’m sure you feel as strongly as I do, that a young girl in the UK, between 13 and 17, has a 33 per cent chance of experiencing sexual violence. I’m sure that you as a woman do not want to live in a world, as I don’t, where one in five women will be raped, or have been rape attempted against them. Let us just put the focus where it belongs, I beseech you, meri behen.

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