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Oscar-nommed doc: A 13-year-old and her dad demand justice after she is raped

A scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary <em>To Kill a Tiger,</em> about the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl and how she and her father pursued justice even though many of the people in their village did not support their efforts — and even believed she should marry one of the rapists.
Notice Pictures/National Film Board of Canada and Notice Pictures Inc.
A scene from the Oscar-nominated documentary To Kill a Tiger, about the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl and how she and her father pursued justice even though many of the people in their village did not support their efforts — and even believed she should marry one of the rapists.

Content Warning: The following story references sexual assault of a teenager.

"As her father, I deeply regret that I didn't protect her."

That's Ranjit, a middle-age rice farmer from the Bero district of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. He is speaking of the gang rape of his 13-year-old daughter. Their story is the subject of director Nisha Pahuja's film, To Kill a Tiger, which has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film.

Set in a scenic village, with lush rice fields and dusty lanes, replete with goats, Pahuja's documentary transports viewers to the beauty of small-town India – and the heartaches and strife in Ranjit's life.

In the opening scene, a girl braids her hair, securing it with bright orange ribbons that look like a burst of golden flowers. She looks to be all of 13.

The camera shifts to a middle-aged man, his face worn and tired. He's seated beside lush green fields, and speaks of the love he has for his daughter, one of four children. "The amount of love I gave her, I wasn't able to give any other child," he says. In the film, Ranjit worries about the well-being of his other children but addressing the huge injustice done to his daughter takes up much of his time and emotional energy.

A crime, a connection

The incident happened on the night of Ranjit's nephew's wedding. The family had left the party earlier, and the daughter (the movie uses the pseudonym "Kiran" to protect her from online trolling) was supposed to return home shortly afterward. It wasn't until 1.30 a.m. that an anxious Ranjit found his daughter stumbling home. She told her family she had been dragged away by three men and raped. One of them was Ranjit's nephew.

The sexual assault was so violent that it caused considerable internal injury, says Ranjit. His daughter was traumatized, he says. For weeks, his once bright, chatty little girl seldom spoke.

It was shortly after this event, in May 2017, that documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja came into their lives. Born in Delhi, India, Pahuja moved to Canada in the 1970s with her family, but she's spent over 25 years filming in India, a country which she calls "the greatest teacher of complexity."

At the time, Pahuja was following the work done by The Center for Help and Social Justice and the Srijan Foundation, nonprofits that focused on empowering women and children in the villages of Jharkhand. She was interested in their ongoing project to create awareness among men and boys about the prejudices that they may hold to bolster the belief that women are inferior to men.

Ranjit had been a part of this project. After his daughter's assault, the Srijan Foundation began to work closely with him for justice.

Pahuja says she was struck by Ranjit's actions after his daughter's rape. As shown in the movie, many villagers insisted that his daughter should marry one of the rapists to keep the peace in the village. Ranjit refused — and filed a complaint with police.

Ranjit and his family's courage and their fight drew her to the story, Pahuja says.

In a country where a woman is raped every 20 minutes, often survivors struggle to have their voices heard. "It's very rare for a father to support his daughter this way," says Pahuja.

Research and filming for the documentary spanned three-and-a-half years.

A changed man, a determined daughter

Over the course of the film, Ranjit transforms from a simple farmer to a man determined to get justice for his daughter. "After what they've done, we have to fight back," he says.

There were moments in the film when Ranjit wavers. He takes to drinking excessively, something he never used to do. He avoids the social workers who provide him with support and remind him about attending court hearings. He's painfully aware of the poor harvest that season due to drought and the extra expense that the trial is costing him. He's in debt, his family has been isolated by the experience and he and his wife are worried about their safety and the safety of their other children.

But it was the daughter's insistence that the rapists be brought to justice that particularly impressed Pahuja.

"I was struck by Kiran's spirit and strength," she says. "She refused to back down and allow her parents to drop the case." This especially hit home on the day of her testimony. "Before then, I was always anxious for her and the trauma that she'd experienced," says Pahuja.

On the morning that the daughter was due to testify in court, Pahuja says she asked her on camera, while she was having breakfast, how she was feeling — footage that wasn't included in the documentary. The daughter replied that she was nervous and scared. "However, when she walked into that courtroom, her posture and confidence were striking," says Pahuja.

Ranjit later told her that there were moments when his daughter cried when she spoke about what happened, but her voice was clear and for the most part, she was very composed. "It really amazed me," says Pahuja. "She's still a strong-willed tough young woman, very defiant. Both her parents had moments where they wondered whether they were doing the right thing but her determination was unwavering. I remember wondering, where does that resolve come from, especially in someone that young?"

A young woman's bold decision

Because of the stigma involved, the identities of rape victims are never revealed in India. And while the documentary does not name the village where the daughter lives and uses a pseudonym to protect her privacy online, her face is shown throughout the film. That's because the daughter, now 20, chose to reveal herself after watching the footage. At the end of the film, the filmmakers clarify "Kiran is one of a handful of survivors who chose to reveal their identity. She did so after watching her 13-year-old self in this film. Her parents fully support her decision. After consulting extensively with women's rights activists, the filmmakers decided to reveal her."

There are many moments in the documentary that show us the daughter's quiet strength and spunky personality. She paints her fingernails bright pink, like 13-year-olds anywhere. Yet her experience has clearly changed her. In one scene she wonders, "I keep thinking whether I will fall in love or not. I think about that a lot. And if I do, how do I tell him what happened to me?"

At times during filming, Pahuja admits to feeling fear for herself and her crew. "I wouldn't say we were entirely welcome, but the [villagers] weren't hostile all the time. People would smile at us and invite us for tea. As the case wore on, and it was clear that the family wasn't going to drop the charges, the tensions started to rise."

More than anything, she says she felt remorse that she was part of the dismantling of community bonds. "I knew that attitudes had to change and they can't suppress the truth, but I understand the value of community, especially in a culture like India," she says. "The support that you get from it — economic, social, emotional — these are complex systems of survival. So I was very aware of the need for disrupting as well as sadness at the fact that we were disrupting it."

A landmark ruling

The judgment came in 2018 after a 14-month trial. Judge Diwakar Pandey who was overseeing the case, stunned the court and the general public with a landmark decision — he found the three men guilty and sentenced them each to 25 years in prison. They are now serving out the sentence but have filed an appeal in a higher court.

Conviction in rape cases in India has jumped from 27% in 2018 to 39% in 2020, per data from India's Home Ministry. That's largely because of the death of a young woman aboard a bus in Delhi, one of India's most horrific cases of gang rape in 2012, after which laws changed. That year saw the introduction of the Protection of Children's from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) — fast tracking trials when minors are victims of sexual assault. The case that the film centers on was tried under POCSO, which relies heavily on the testimony of the sexual assault survivor rather than focusing on the medical examination and eyewitness testimony, as is the practice in cases where adult women have been raped.

Perhaps this case would have a ripple effect in courtrooms across the nation, reporters surmise in the documentary. Local activists say the case has helped other women speak up and seek justice too.

"In India, there are tough laws against rape, but there are also many barriers to getting justice," says S Mona Sinha, the global executive director of the human rights organization Equality Now. "We are building stronger laws that center a woman's lack of consent as a deciding factor."

Another barrier to justice is that around the world, women often aren't valued enough or thought to have the same rights as men, Sinha says. "In the film, we see that the village headman is concerned about the boys' future, but what about the girl who went through the trauma? We see a father who struggles and perseveres to have his daughter's voice heard, to say that she's an equal and deserves justice and not to be married off to the person who raped her. He stands up for her in the face of immense intimidation — a male allyship that is very powerful," Sinha says.

She hopes the film will break some of the legal and cultural barriers that prevent women from being perceived as equal and from receiving justice.

The last scene of the documentary offers a reminder of the power of those barriers by explaining the title of the film. An elated Ranjit receives news of the verdict — his daughter's aggressors have been jailed.

He is relieved and joyful. He says that he remembers how people once told him, "You can't kill a tiger by yourself."

Ranjit says, "I said I would kill the tiger, and I did."

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science and development and has been published in TheNew York Times, The British Medical Journal, the BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on X @kamal_t

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kamala Thiagarajan