Wrenching, powerful, timely, and insightful, director Nisha Pahuja’s documentary To Kill a Tiger is one of the best investigations into the nature of toxic masculinity and rape culture in modern Indian society. Coming hot on the heels of indispensable books like Tara Kaushal’s Why Men Rape and Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls, To Kill a Tiger furthers an already pointed conversation about sexual violence against women in a country where 90% of rapes tend to go unreported – with one being committed approximately every twenty minutes – and only 30% of those reported leading to convictions. To Kill a Tiger puts a personal face to the figures and broader stories, as Pahuja embeds herself with a family in their darkest, most trying time.
In the Bero district of Jharkhand, located in the eastern part of the country, not far from the Bangladesh border, a farmer named Ranjit has filed a case against three local men accused of gang raping his then 13-year old daughter on April 9, 2017 as she was on the way home from a family wedding. (The young woman, now over the age of eighteen, is identified in the documentary, but the filmmakers have asked to keep her name and image private for the time being, and for reasons that should be obvious in a moment.) Upon filing the charges, Ranjit, his daughter, and his wife, Jaganti, are caught up in a legal system that values victim’s rights minimally, and a larger community that would rather this whole thing be swept under the rug, amicably resolved, and kept within the village.
Many in the village think that such charges against three young men will bring shame to the community and especially onto Ranjit’s family. After being raped, no one will marry Ranjit’s daughter, and many think the only proper solution is for her to marry one of her rapists. Locals, including most of the women in town, constantly espouse reductive, short sighted, sexist, and victim blaming sentiments directly to Ranjit and Jaganti. Boys will be boys, and they should be forgiven so this unfortunate incident doesn’t ruin their future prospects. It was Ranjit’s fault for not protecting his daughter’s virginity better. She shouldn’t have been out so late. Women are often complicit in their own rapes. These untruths combined with antiquated views on what it means to preserve honour and face in the village make Ranjit’s fight an upward battle. Overworked prosecutors, depressingly inept (or maybe willfully negligent) police investigators, and the local ward member – seen as the “voice of the village” – flat out calling Ranjit “a loser” to his face doesn’t help matters any.
With To Kill a Tiger, Pahuja makes a strong decision to place to focus on someone able to fight the case rather than making the victim constantly relive their trauma. Ranjit’s daughter could never hope to face such a patriarchal and devout system on her own, especially as it becomes increasingly evident that her father can barely keep up himself. There are many moments throughout To Kill a Tiger where it looks like Ranjit is coming close to throwing in the towel, and given the oppressive air of hostility that surrounds his just cause, one could almost forgive him for doing so. Pahuja, who initially set out to make a broader look at gender rights activists fighting back against rape culture in India, puts a human face to a much larger and more insidious cultural struggle, capturing an entire community that has had a constant mistrust of equality baked into the culture of everyday life.
Sharp editing and highly intuitive and detailed cinematography help to make To Kill a Tiger into one of those documentaries that approaches the emotional heights of grand, unforced human drama. Pahuja never shies away from difficult moments of vulnerability, anger, and conflict, and the presence of her crew increasingly draws out hostility and paranoia in villagers who want this entire case to be dropped immediately. But Pahuja and her subjects never waver in their quest for justice and acknowledgement. There are many frightening moments where people gang up on Nisha and Ranjit en masse in a bid to intimidate them, but in spite of clear and present danger, they persevere.
To Kill a Tiger (which was also recently named as one of TIFF’s illustrious top ten Canadian films of the year) never positions this single case as a catch all example of what’s going on in India as it pertains to rape cases brought about in more outlying areas of the country where gender equality and progress is often hard to find. But as a highly detailed and personal work that can point people in a direction where they could learn more about the subject and make a larger impact, To Kill a Tiger has an undeniable and unshakable power. It is one of those documentaries where anyone who watches it won’t be the same person by the end as they were when it started.
To Kill at Tiger opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Thursday, February 9, 2023, with a special Q&A with Nisha Pahuja, editor Mike Munn, and moderator Deepa Mehta on opening night at 6:30pm. It also opens at VIFF Centre in Vancouver on February 10 (with a virtual Q&A with Pahuja following the 2:20pm showing on February 11) and Cinema du Parc in Montreal on Saturday, February 11. It also screens at The Westdale in Hamilton on Saturday, February 11 at 7:00pm, with a Q&A Pahuja, and again on February 15th at 3:30pm (without Q&A).
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