New Delhi: Anubhav Sinha’s film Article 15, released in theatres yesterday, is an unmissably sensitive and powerful portrayal of caste dynamics in India. Two flashpoints it references are the 2014 alleged rape and murder of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun and the flogging of a Dalit family by a group of self-proclaimed “gau rakshaks” in Una, Gujarat, in 2016.
Interesting, yes. Brave, yes. But it also leads to larger questions about popular culture’s relationship with someone else’s trauma, and the question here is: what is the ethical way to present this trauma?
Cinema is India’s most pervasive cultural messaging tool, far more than books, theatre, dance or music, and in this context, making a film on a true story, particularly a traumatic one such as rape or murder, can be tricky.
ThePrint looks at some of these films and spoke to filmmakers, victims’ families and psychologists to understand why these films are made, how to make them and their possible impact — on the victim or survivor, their family and public consciousness.
Intent and consent
When is a crime considered a person or family’s trauma and at what point does it become a matter of public interest? It’s a thin line and one that director Hansal Mehta (Aligarh, Shahid, Omerta, to name a few) is familiar with. He tells ThePrint that it boils down to the intent of the filmmaker.
“If there is a story that resonates with you, that should be the reason for wanting to tell that story, instead of following a trend. It should come from a personal space, and if you have that, your empathy and sensitivity towards the subject is reflected in the film.”
Sabrina Lall, sister of murdered model Jessica Lall, agrees. “Are you making the film to sensationalise the issue or are you making it to put a true story out there?” She also believes involving the person or their family in the process is the right way to go about this. She recalls that when UTV approached her to approve No One Killed Jessica (2011), she was extremely wary.
“You don’t know what Bollywood might do with an incident like this. But director Raj Kumar Gupta was clear that he wanted my signoff on the script, and we spent many evenings together going over it. My only concern was that I didn’t want my sister to be shown in any kind of weird light. As long as they stuck to facts, I was fine with it.”
Seeking consent should be anyone’s first port of call, says Scherezade Sanchita Siobhan. The psychologist, author and community catalyst believes it should be mandatory from both a legal and ethical standpoint.
“One must respect the privacy and safety of those people whose story one wishes to explore. Outside India, folks usually consult social workers/psychologists prior to framing their approach in these situations. Mediation through an unbiased and trained source is usually helpful because sometimes a family or even a survivor may not wish to be interrupted in order to revisit something terrible or debilitating,” says Siobhan.
“There has to be serious labour directed towards this task if a filmmaker/writer is planning to pick up a contemporary/present day event.”
‘Life as lens’
Mehta doesn’t agree that it is necessary, but believes it’s up to the filmmaker. It is something he tries to do, though.
For Shahid (2013), based on the life of Shahid Azmi, the human rights lawyer and activist who was shot dead in 2010, Mehta and his team sought permission from Azmi’s family, and had access to material from them and his colleagues, apart from their own research. He recalls that the family was initially not keen for this film to be made, but Mehta met them a few times and convinced them of his purpose.
Aligarh (2016), based on Ramchandra Siras, the AMU professor who was suspended from his post for having sex with another man and was found dead in his apartment in 2010, was a different situation. Siras’ family had been estranged from him for a while, so Mehta and his team managed to get some information from his colleagues, but relied largely on what was publicly available.
“My objective was to show not just his life, but using his life as a lens, to show the life of a marginalised community — the LGBTQs — and their loneliness.”
Intent, he says, also goes both ways. “These Brahmin groups protesting against Article 15, without even having watched it — one must also question their intent, whether it’s money or mileage, whatever it might be.”
For Omerta (2018), on the British terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, currently on death row in Pakistan, Mehta had no access to the man or his family, but he relied on archives that are in the public domain, conversations with the man’s former inmates at Tihar Jail and his diary, which is also accessible.
“I wanted to tell his story from what I imagined to be his lens, even if I couldn’t meet him,” says Mehta.
Truth vs creative licence
The makers of Delhi Crime, a 2019 Netflix series, the first season of which is about the 2012 Delhi bus gang rape and murder, said the script was based on legal documents, but the show was also slammed for being a PR exercise for the Delhi Police, and for shaming the victim’s friend for allegedly getting intimate with her on the bus, and, in the words of one of the cops in the show, not doing enough to save her and being a publicity seeker.
Delhi’s then Commissioner of Police, Neeraj Kumar, who served as a story consultant on the show, said that the story was 60–65 per cent truth and the rest was fictionalised.
The question remains — is it fair to fictionalise when the people in question or their families are alive? What would that young man have felt watching what was probably the worst time of his life play out on screen — and watching himself be shown in that manner?
For Mehta, this depends on the maker’s perspective and what aspect of an incident they want to highlight. He recalls, “We did tell Shahid Azmi’s family that we weren’t going to paint him as all-white, and they were fine with that. They understood that it is not possible to compress someone’s entire life into a two-hour story and still show every aspect.
“We would dramatise some parts, we would conflate multiple characters into one. For me, it was not about portraying the life of Shahid Azmi, but the idea of what he stood for.”
Trial by film?
In neither of the cases that Article 15 is inspired by is the verdict out. Does this mean the movie should not be made?
Mehta explains, “Article 15 [which he has seen and is an unequivocal fan of] is not about the Badaun or Una incidents, but uses them as flashpoints to tell a larger story, to send a larger message about caste discrimination. It holds up a mirror to society. So in that sense, it is not going to harm the trial proceedings in any case.”
Talvar (2015), Meghna Gulzar’s film on the Noida double murder case of 2008, is a good example to look at here. The film had its India release in 2015, when Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were still in jail, accused of killing their only daughter, Aarushi, and their domestic help, Hemraj.
Can their subsequent acquittal in 2017 (now challenged by the CBI) be attributed to the film? And even if one does believe that, was it unfair? The film never explicitly says that the parents weren’t guilty; it merely presents the multiple investigations that were carried out and the fact that evidence was botched up right from the first day onwards. That is not conjecture, but universally accepted fact.
If the film does have a message, it is less that the parents are innocent and more that in the absence of evidence beyond reasonable doubt, is it fair to keep them in prison?
Cinema has a huge impact, especially in India. So a film or show can have massive psychological effects on the victim, both good and bad. It can also be game-changing in a larger social sense.
Psychotherapist Debasmita Sinha explains, “Coming across your own story of trauma through any medium will stir up painful memories at the least. It can cause anxiety, panic attacks, night terrors or trigger PTSD or dissociation — among the more severe possibilities.
“On the other hand, helping a survivor tell their story can be a therapeutic experience. How one responds to such stimuli usually depends on whether they have processed their traumatic experiences, and if so, how healthily.”
Siobhan takes the conversation a step further.
“We don’t have sufficient investment made into community healing for trauma survivors and it is self-defeating to use their stories only for temporary outrage when we are not willing to marshal resources for long-term well-being,” says Sobhian.
“Are the directors willing to set up funds for the marginalised folks they are filming? Do they return from winning prizes to check up on how folks are doing or if they need help? Do they leverage their own position and privilege to access better support for those whose stories they want to tell?”
Sabrina Lall recalls that the makers of No One Killed Jessica offered her money as they felt it was only right. She refused to take it, though, and suggested sending the money to an NGO or setting up some kind of fund in Jessica’s name.
“See, in that situation, it was a movie about one individual and incident anyway. But movies that are talking about a community that is marginalised — they should definitely contribute to their welfare in some way. If you are making money off a community’s story, do something for the community as well.”
Mehta, though, feels that it is struggle enough to even make a film on a marginalised community (“No one wants to”), and get funds for it. For him, the aim is to get the story out there, tell a good story that stirs up debate and conversation and make sure that the story lives on in public consciousness.
“You should do justice to the legacy of the person whose story you’re telling.”
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.