Toronto-based Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s documentary is about a farmer in Jharkhand, who fought for his lifetime to get justice for the crime against her daughter
Dawn reveals its colour across the rural landscape in India; a reddish sky, a motionless pond, some vegetation in the distance. The next frame takes us to a village life. A small mirror sits on a mud window pane, and we see deft fingers busy weaving a plait, twining it with a colourful ribbon that transforms into a many-petalled flower.
Hardly does one know that in this complex binding of a ribbon flower and deep eyes that sees herself in the slightly dusty mirror, pan a revolutionary, transformative cinema about a young adult called Kiran (pseudonym to protect her privacy) who, along with her father Ranjit, would smash the idea of victimhood, wining a criminal case against the three men who had sexually assaulted her.
This is encapsulated in a 125-minute-long documentary, To Kill A Tiger, shot over three-and-a-half years, which tells the electrifying real story of a father–daughter duo and their quest to seek justice. The film has been directed and produced by Toronto-based Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, along with producers David Oppenheim, Anita Lee, Cornelia Principe, Andy Cohen. It has been executively produced by American actor, screenwriter, producer Mindy Kailing, British actor Dev Patel and Canadian poet, writer and illustrator Rupi Kaur.
A subversive tale against sexual violence
To Kill A Tiger revolves around justice of a lifetime sought over an unfathomable wrongdoing. The documentary also brings forth the complex idea of masculinity in India entrenched in its villages. Kiran and her father’s story stand out. Their deprived existence in rural Jharkhand, their battle against all odds only add to their subversive tale against sexual violence and the associated shame.
The film, which had its theatrical release in the US recently, has been receiving accolades for the tender yet resolute storytelling by Pahuja; it has already won more than 20 international awards. Interestingly, Pahuja hadn’t set out to film Kiran and Ranjit’s story at first. She was in Jharkhand filming a different project. “I was making a documentary that was looking at masculinity in India, following the work of an NGO in Jharkhand, that was running a three-and-a-half-year gender sensitization programme with boys and men across the state. My idea was to document this work and the changes that took place due to this intervention. Over the course of time, this happened to Ranjit and his daughter and I began to track their story.” In the following months, Pahuja continued filming everything that trailed in their life. “Initially, the idea was to have three storylines, with Ranjit and their court case at the centre, and weaving in other storylines around it to give a fuller picture of changing masculinity but at the edit, we realised that we simply needed to focus on this one and make the film about Kiran and Ranjit, and their family.”
The unordinary case emerged as the central spine of what is now a feature-length documentary, one of the distinctly personal yet socially relevant documentaries of recent times. To Kill A Tiger has been transformative at more than one level for Pahuja and her core crew: “They had so much resilience (referring to the father-daughter duo), and it was deeply moving for me and Anita and then once we got into the edit, the editors were so inspired by the family. In the edit room, one actually started living the story.”
A journey of emotion, sympathy
Pahuja had lived with the story for eight year, starting from the days of her work on masculinity with the NGO. Her ‘immersive’ experiences of India’s realities, the hardship that millions face here are gently woven in the narrative of the film. One of the scenes where one senses Pahuja's insightful understanding is when one hears Ranjit calling himself a helpless father and is also called a ‘loser’ by someone in the community.
Pahuja cinematically acknowledges those moments of fallibility that Ranjit as a man and father goes through. To that she is fantastically supported by her distinct cinematographer Mrinal Desai, whose camerawork is non-intrusive, subtle. Despite these vulnerable situations on camera, Pahuja knew she had “a heroes’ story”. “It’s actually in the edit that I realized the immense depth and nuance of what I had recorded. Their story reflected the larger cultural and historical reality,” she assets. The filmmaker also admits how this rural family had now become a part of her life, “my entire being for many years have been their story”.
To feel this way isn’t easy, it’s a journey of emotion, sympathy, of nurturing openness and intimacy between a few people (read the director and her subjects). When deconstructed in the language of documentary filmmaking, this would indicate unfettered access to her subjects.
A film about what it feels to be a human
Unlike most shooting scenarios, Pahuja first met Ranjit when a member of the NGO visited their house after the brutal incident. “I met Ranjit in the context of an unfolding story; usually, in a documentary you meet your subjects, you have time with them, you let them get used to camera. In this case, I started filming right away. I recall it took three or four months before the family felt at ease in front of the camera. There was never any issue with filming them, other than once when some in the community seemed upset”. The director and her crew recorded those awkward moments, never shying away from multidimensional realities of filming in a rural situation in India. It would not be too off the mark to say that this was also reflective of the growing organic relationship between director and Kiran and her family, while being brave and feeling aligned all at once.
Pahuja, of course, is reluctant to give herself any extra attribute for this but simply cites it as an approach to her craft of filmmaking “when they became completely relaxed in front of camera, the intimacy we had with this family is really special for me, and they forgot we were there. We became literally a part of their family.” Her words resonated with an honest groundedness.
It's hard to recall any other documentary about India in recent times so deliberate and intimate other than All That Breathes, an Academy Award nominee in the last season.
With the film's release in the US, one would wait to see its relatability and impact. On that front, Pahuja is optimistic on more than one account: “You know a person fighting the system faced with obstacles is like a David-Goliath story and one will root for the underdog. Also, I think the core subject makes for an emotional connection. There is not a woman in this world who has not experienced the fear that her body and gender may be violated. That, to me, is absolutely universal. The film would also connect with many on its quotient of resilience and how we can go that extra mile when it comes to protecting those we love. On its surface, it may feel like a film from India but it's actually a film about what it feels to be a human. That’s why it continues to resonate, touching something deep inside.”
While these could be a connect for an individual viewer, a more systematic impact campaign is at work, with her team collaborating with Equality Now, a coalition building advocacy-based global women’s rights organisation. She shares: “They see the film as something that can be used to initiate change, especially around law which is Equality Now’s focus. We are also going to engage with a lot of culture-changing organisations in the United States and also in India. Plus, we want to encourage Kiran who has been unflinchingly brave and pro-justice to emerge as a role model for other survivors”. The filmmaker takes a breather before she optimistically notes, “Ranjit, too, can act as a role model for a man and a father standing up for his daughter, something that doesn’t happen in India at all.”
Without divulging further details Pahuja assures that impact campaign and screening in India are both on. It will happen in time but meanwhile the undefeatable Kiran has travelled to the UK for screenings, speaking for herself and would be again in the US. Pahuja’s face lights up as we sign off: “They were supposed to be in the US, and had already been to the UK screenings which was amazing. They did the Q&A and I did not speak at all, that’s how it should be. She very much wants to celebrate the story, wanting people to know what she did.”
To Kill A Tiger will remain a significant cinematic work, a document of human triumph in a country whose figures of crime against women are morbid, with the last published pendency rate being 95% at the end of 2021.