When word of a Delhi court's ban on the film "India's Daughter" reached Leslee Udwin last week, the filmmaker faced a problem. Udwin was in the country working on some final edits, and she was forced to decide between continuing that work and risking interrogation and arrest.
"I called seven lawyers, and every one of them said I should flee India," Udwin said in an interview. "Six of them said I should get on the next plane, and a seventh said I should get in a car right then and drive across the border to Nepal. I was going to leave, and then I thought, 'The whole point of the movie is making your voice heard against evil forces.' So I didn't go anywhere."
On Monday, Udwin began raising her rallying cry on American shores. She was able to leave India unharmed several days after the ban and was speaking backstage shortly before her film was to make its U.S. premiere at a starry but serious-minded event in downtown Manhattan ahead of an airing on PBS later this year. In the space of a few days, Udwin's film has become a touchstone for women's equality worldwide--even as it can't legally be shown in its home country.
"India's Daughter" documents the brutal assault on a 23-year-old Delhi medical student who, boarding a bus to return home after seeing a movie with a male friend in 2012, was gang-raped by a group of male passengers. The incident was gruesome; it involved not just repeated rapes but an onslaught that at one point had the attackers pulling out the victim's intestines. She died several days after the assault.
Four men were sentenced to death in the attack, and the massive protests against the rape that followed became a referendum for women's rights both on the subcontinent and around the world.
Produced by the BBC, the film features harrowing interviews with the victim's parents, including her mother describing her poignant last moments with her daughter as well as her father's controlled anger at his daughter's killers.
"To call them human is an insult to the word humanity," he says in the movie.
But the film provokes its greatest outrage in showing those killers and their supporters, some of whom Udwin interviewed on camera — and whose words present a portrait of an India rife with gender inequality and poisonous attitudes toward women.
Defense lawyers point the finger at the victim for being out at night; one describes women "like a diamond" and says that "if you leave a diamond out, a dog will take it." One of the convicted killers, Mukesh Singh, is shown at length in the film talking about the attack and offering justifications for it; he said the woman would have been spared if only she "didn't fight back."
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, particularly Home Minister Rajnath Singh, has criticized the film for portraying the status of Indian women inaccurately, and he and other officials expressed concern the film can cause violence, citing the earlier protests that led to clashes with law enforcement.
Delhi police, which sought the restraining order on the film after the home minister's comments last week, released a statement that said the movie "created a situation of tension and fear amongst women in our society."
But the bid to suppress quickly had the opposite effect, shooting the movie to the top of Twitter's trending topics late last week and prompting it to go viral online, while also leading to unofficial screenings in villages across India. On Sunday night, the film's Indian broadcaster, NDTV, decided to show a black screen during the entirety of a time slot in which the film was scheduled to premiere.
"The home minister blamed the protesters when these were protests on the Gandhian level, peaceful and right and good," Udwin said Monday. "The irony is it only became violent when the police got involved."
"The government," she added of the ban, "should hang its head in shame."
Udwin, a British-based filmmaker who produced the BAFTA-winning multicultural dramedy "East Is East" in 1999, has become a hero among women's rights activists because of her response to the ban. She has also denied accusations in the Indian media that Mukesh Singh was either paid for his time or interviewed without his consent. A title card at the start of the film refutes the latter claim.
Actresses Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, Dakota Fanning and singer Chris Martin were among those at the premiere, an event organized by women's-rights groups Vital Voices and Plan International at Manhattan's Baruch College. The celebrities became involved because of the initial interest of Alan Rickman, who is a friend of Udwin's and began spreading the word among other entertainers.
Streep led a candle-lighting ceremony before the screening, reading some of the victim's accounts of the assault, then issued a plea to the audience. "We're called here to contend with something more than rape," Streep said. "What is worse than violence? Violence sanctioned by misogyny."
Pinto, a producer on the movie, said in an interview before the screening that she saw this as "a universal story, and something I got involved with because it's not just about what happens in India."
She gave an address after the screening in which she criticized even Western attitudes about the Indian gang-rape, noting a TV script she had been sent recently that contained a joke about it, and also issued a wide-ranging plea to people as diverse policymakers and teenage boys to shift their thinking. She closed her speech by asking people to close their eyes and be "bathed in the light, the light that was Jyoti."
Udwin also took the stage after the screening as part of a panel discussion about women's rights issues.
"The disease is not rape, and the disease is not human trafficking," she said. "The disease is gender inequality. And all these things are the metastases of the primary tumor."