Oscars 2024: To Kill A Tiger Is Morally Prickly And Moving

Directed by Nisha Pahuja the film follows the trials of a family in the aftermath of a gang rape and was nominated for best documentary at the Oscars
Oscars 2024: To Kill A Tiger Is Morally Prickly And Moving

Director, Writer: Nisha Pahuja

Cinematographer: Mrinal Desai 

Editors: Mike Munn, Dave Kazala

Music: Jonathan Goldsmith

To Kill A Tiger, Nisha Pahuja’s Oscar-nominated documentary on the 13-year old survivor of a gang rape in Jharkhand and her father’s decision to stand by her, and use the cumbersome courts as a system of redressal, begins with a line that quakes an ethical quandary: “The survivor you are about to see is now over the age of 18”.  The word ‘now’ is an early warning that the film was shot through her teenage years, and that she gave consent to the film, to the use of her in the film after seeing it, as a woman of age. 

But why even is a camera on a rape survivor under the age of 18? “Filming the rape survivor when she was a minor and using that footage in a documentary film revealing her face and disclosing other details is a violation of Indian law,” Rebecca Mammen John, a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India, told critic Anna Veticad.

Can we rationalize that act of bringing her to the camera — whether it is footage that will be used or not, that she is comfortable with it or not? Can consent be given retroactively? If it can be given in this manner, can it also be revoked retroactively? These are thorny questions because so much of the discourse on consent is based on bringing clarity to an act that is not always so amenable to these arbitrary lines, which feel like they are drawn in sand, but are embossed in legal paper. 

Putting “Kiran” in the Spotlight 

The philosopher and feminist theorist Amia Srinivasan, when talking of sex, puts this fetishization of consent to test, because the current vein of sex positivity, “sees consent as the sole constraint on sex, thereby moving sex out of the political realm entirely,” by which she means, it does not ask of itself why somethings are desired and given consent to, and not others. The mere act of giving consent is considered enough. Pushing that similar thread into this mix, the decision to give and not give consent to be filmed is a formality that comes from certain choices — why were those choices made in the first place? Can we subject the desires of a filmmaker to more political scrutiny beyond the simple question of the subject’s consent? 

The film requests us not to share identifying images of its child subject, and yet, makes use of her face — this was the choice made later, with her consent. It gives her another identifying name, “Kiran”. These are instances when you brush up against the inherent exploitative nature of documentary filmmaking, the violence of turning a person into a protagonist, one which can only be countered by piecemeal kindnesses. 

And this film provides those recesses of kindness, too, filming with care. You don’t hear from Kiran till much later, as though she is getting used to the camera. You initially see her from behind, combing her hair patiently — chipped blue nail paint on her hands — tying it into knots through a ribbon, or standing in the corner, dunked in shadows. Through the intervention of a local NGO, Srijan Foundation, we are brought into conversation with the family, and eventually with Kiran, too. She initially mostly replies with “Ji” and “Nahin”. But as the film progresses, her voice becomes clearer, more confident, as though both the film and its protagonist were finding their voice together. In one of the most pulverizing scenes, she practices her statement the day before her appearance in court, recounting the specific details — pants shrunk, panties pulled, the tree under which it happened — of that night, again and again. Why are we allowed to see this? Why does it hurt so much? 

For the most part, the film finds its script on the riven, tired face of Kiran’s father, Ranjit, a man who is not able to say the word for rape in Hindi, often just using “kiya” or 'doing' as substitute, who, to speak of his inability to protect Kiran, says, “Uska pita nahin kar paye”, “I was unable to father her”, father being transformed into a verb, implying protection. 

Constrained by Context

The film refuses to frame them as more than people attached to this heinous act, and this is part of the violence of rape, as psychoanalysts like Jacqueline Rose have pointed out, that it tends to crowd out any other fronds of thought in the mind of the survivor, almost colonizing the spirit after a point, that it seems to be the only thing they can speak of, and the film mimics this colonized state, subtitling “izzat” at one point as “virginity”. Any conversation with them is only about the act, and the social spillage from it — ostracization from the village. It has claustrophobically pinned them down, which allows for that “aaram” or relief when the courts finally relent. For a film that paces itself patiently, at a languorous two-hours, it refuses to be absorptive of the world as it could have been, the social hierarchies within which they exist, of tribal identity, content with the shaven clarity of its plotline. They did not have the kind of open access to the family, with the villagers constantly looking over their shoulders. You can feel yourself up against the constraints within which the film was made, the strained, streamlined gaze with which the filmmakers airdropped into that context, to keep visiting every few months.  

Kiran and Ranjit’s decision to go to the courts runs counter to the village’s desires for a compromise — that Kiran marry one of her three rapists, so the name of the village isn’t sullied. It is the older women of the village who hold this opinion, and here is where you see how women are socialized into these beliefs, and what it must take for a girl as young as thirteen and her father to needle through this miasma, and insist on justice as an act that can only be arrived at by struggle. It is poignant, this framing of justice as something that cannot be touched easily, by merely desiring it, desperately. This desperation must labor, languish in courts over a 14-month trial, and the indignity of coaxing men to be witnesses by appealing to their egos.  

The Power and Problem of the Gaze

While making what was supposed to be an essay-film on masculinity in India, director Nisha Pahuja stumbled upon this case. She began shooting this, not knowing where it would lead, until there was “a deep commitment on both sides, [the film] was something you were doing with them as opposed to about them”. Eight years in the making, To Kill A Tiger was burped out of this commitment, which was run entirely on instinct. It is a film whose power lies in its gaze, as fraught and forgiving as it is, now with the star power of Dev Patel, Mindy Kaling, Deepa Mehta and, most recently, Priyanka Chopra Jonas stepping in as executive producers.

But there is a way language can obfuscate reality, where words can be wielded so heavily they can be mistaken for action. There is an inherent asymmetry of power and between director and protagonist in the documentary genre, one is artist and the other is on whom, through whom this artistry is practiced. This is not to strip away agency from the protagonist, but to insist that their agency is mediated under the thumb of the artist, and this is the tension many films often morally or narratively collapse under. 

To Kill A Tiger, instead,surfaces, as a naive and sensitive scribe of pain that has been woven into the fabric of a nation where a rape happens every twenty minutes, where 90% of these rapes go unreported, and where rape wants to both be swept under a rug and become a stain that erases its very survivor, for the act to be made invisible and the survivor to be that much more visibalized, a floating irony.

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