Sex as violence

Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta speaks to Life about her latest film, which asks difficult questions on gender inequality

Deepa Mehta at the special screening of Anatomy Of Violence in Bangkok last Friday. Photo: UN Women/Pathuumporn Thongking

The raw urgency of award-winning Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta's film Anatomy Of Violence, which examines the 2012 shocking assault and rape of medical student Jyoti Singh by six men aboard a moving bus in New Delhi, drives home the need to address gender inequality at the root.

Mehta, an Oscar-nominated director, is recognised for her movies which challenge traditions and stereotypes such as the elemental trilogy Earth, Fire and Water. The Amritsar-born filmmaker was recently in Bangkok for a special screening of Anatomy Of Violence, which was part of UN Women's 2017 HeforShe Arts Week.

Anatomy Of Violence is a concoction between fiction and fact in an improvised exploration of the events leading up to and following the notorious gang rape of the 23-year-old woman, who eventually succumbed to her injuries. The incident sparked huge protests across the sub-continent, whipping up along the way a broader conversation about public safety for women in a culture that sometimes risks being branded misogynistic. Utilising an improvisational style, the film probes what might have driven the rapists towards such a vicious assault and also dramatises the back stories of the assailants and their victim prior to the fatal attack.

"What makes monsters?" is the probing question the film attempts to unearth. It offers no definitive answers but rather sets the stage for discussion into the root causes and complexity of this all too pervasive violence against women -- not just in India but across the world.

What is certain is that Anatomy Of Violence firmly indicts the system that breeds rapists, sowing their actions in masculine abuse, poverty and ignorance. After sitting through the 96-minute film, one comes to the conclusion that Mehta has managed to make a responsible, empathetic and thoughtful statement while tiptoeing around the gaping stumbling blocks of moral relativism.

During an interview with Life, Mehta spoke on a number of issues, starting with how she managed to detach herself while directing the emotionally charged film.

"One of the first things you learn as a director is to detach yourself. I didn't go through film school, so I didn't learn how to become a director," she said. "In fact, one of my big heroes is Indian film director Satyajit Ray. I've had the good fortune of having been with him on set, as an observer. He is known for films that are humanistic, that are difficult, that are about relationships and more.

"One of the main things I learnt from observing him was his detachment. It isn't that I have to be a great swimmer to do a film on swimming. I feel detachment is so important because it gives you an objectivity, it makes you question yourself and the choices you make."

A scene from Anatomy Of Violence. Photo © Hamilton-Mehta Productions Inc.

Mehta said that Anatomy Of Violence is one of the easiest films she has ever made because she "was not emotionally involved to such a degree that I could not put a distance between myself and the victim".

"Anatomy Of Violence, [an exploration] about what makes a rapist, is something that was very important to me. As a human being and as a woman and as a filmmaker, I don't think that there is a definitive answer. Sadly it is not that easy. I have a glimpse into what can perhaps influence a young man to become a rapist. I know it is a lot to do with society."

Something that helps to understand the motivation behind this film better, she said, is asking, what is the involvement of the family and how we grow up seeing their gender roles? While it is getting better, in India the birth of a girl is often no cause for celebration.

"So where does this start? It starts at home," she said. "It starts with the way we don't value girls. That has to change, gender equality has to come and it is setting in. What is great about Jyoti [the rape victim] and young women today is that they are the ones that have the most amazing jobs and they have hope. We have to push it forward."

Mehta said the film was made because she and the producers wanted it to be used as a tool.

"Our hope is that educational institutions will use it around the world. It is going to become part of the school curriculum in Iceland. It is going to Turkey from village to village, it is going to Norway and South Africa. In educational schools, the same thing is happening in India. It is going to be screened at Ambedkar University [in New Delhi]."

In parting Mehta said that as the world recently celebrated International Women's Day, she wanted people to ask themselves what it meant to celebrate it. For her, it meant men and women are together trying to make a better world, so it is imperative to have men be as aware as women.

"Women who watch this film may want to ask themselves: maybe I am not treating my daughter as well as I am treating my son. So it is not so black or white, men are totally accountable for what they do."


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