In a guest essay for the New York Times earlier this year, Indian journalist Vidya Krishnan wrote, “[T]here is no escaping India’s rape culture; sexual terrorism is treated as the norm.” She cited a study that found more than three quarters of Indian women “who have experienced physical or sexual violence never tell anyone… Prosecutions are rare.”
There are exceptions. In 2017, after a 13-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by three young men in the village of Bero in the Jharkhand state, her father Ranjit demanded justice. This extraordinary case is explored in the documentary To Kill a Tiger, which screened as part of Deadline’s virtual event series For the Love of Docs.
The film by Toronto-based director Nisha Pahuja has won more than 20 awards at festivals around the world. Pahuja learned of the story of Ranjit, his wife Jiganti and their daughter Kiran (a pseudonym used to protect her privacy) while working on a film in India about Indian masculinity.
“I… just began following it almost literally from the moment a few days after they had started the court case,” Pahuja explained during a panel discussion after the screening. “[I] wasn’t sure where it was going to go, what kind of access we’d have, but slowly over time started to build trust and eventually just ended up filming for a year and a half covering the entire story.”
Kiran’s three alleged attackers were arrested and jailed. But immediately Ranjit and Jiganti faced an intense campaign from villagers and officials urging them to drop the prosecution and marry off their daughter to one of the men accused of committing the sexual assault.
The film shows moments where it appears Ranjit might buckle and give up.
“There were lots of times where I thought, I don’t know if he’s going to be able to make it,” Pahuja said. “There’s just so much pressure on him and it’s perpetual and it’s continued and the tenor of it keeps raising, rising. What was so interesting about it is that when Ranjit was in the dumps and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to be able to make it, [Jiganti] was kind of bolstering his courage, or Kiran was. So, I think they got to the finish line really, because they were so unified as a family.”
To Kill a Tiger unfolds in cinematic fashion, enhanced by the photography of Mrinal Desai and the work of award-winning editor Mike Munn.
“It’s primarily a vérité approach,” Munn said of the filmmaking. “You’re in situ with the family often in their home, you’re there with them at the courthouse, those kinds of things. In my career, I’ve done quite a lot of scripted drama and I kind of go back and forth between drama and documentary, and I find the storytelling techniques are similar between the two. You work with tension and drama, with suspense, humor, those kinds of things. You bring to it what you would bring to any story.”
He added, “It was really looking at each scene and see what the dramatic strengths of each scene were. We’re very much in an authentic situation with them, but you still have to present the scene in a dramatic way that would be engaging for an audience.”
A moment of great tension erupts in the film when villagers surround Ranjit and Jiganti’s home, and threaten the family and the filmmakers.
“We were conscious of the fact that this could happen, but when it actually did happen, it was shocking. It was stunning, Pahuja said. “I wasn’t prepared — not for the physical confrontation — I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel emotionally. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Watch the full conversation in the video above.
For the Love of Docs is a virtual Deadline event series sponsored by National Geographic in partnership with the International Documentary Association (IDA). The series continues with a new film screening each Tuesday through December 12. Next up, on November 14, is Confessions of a Good Samaritan, directed by Penny Lane.