THE STORY – Indian farmer Ranjit takes on the fight of his life when he demands justice for his 13-year-old daughter, the victim of a brutal gang rape. His decision to support his daughter is virtually unheard of, and his journey unprecedented.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Nisha Pahuja (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 125 Minutes
Given the subject matter of “To Kill a Tiger” — how a blind eye is turned to the victims of sexual assault in India today — I was not surprised to see an advance warning to audiences that the film contains graphic descriptions of rape. What was most unusual, however, was the slide that followed:
“Please exercise care and compassion for yourself and for your fellow audience members.”
Though an encouragement to look out for one another was not what I was expecting when I sat down to watch, once “To Kill a Tiger” introduces us to the family in question, we realize that such consideration for others and a thirst for justice are their primary motivations on their quest for accountability.
Writer/director Nisha Pahuja introduces us to “Kiran” (a pseudonym), a young woman who is now 18 years old. When she was attending a wedding reception with her family at age 13, Kiran was abducted by three men (including her cousin), brutally raped by each, and warned that she would be killed if she told anyone the truth. Ignoring the threat, she courageously told her father Ranjit, and in part, feeling guilty that he was not able to protect his daughter, he steps up and decides to press charges.
Pahuja, who began this project eight years ago, originally intended the film to be a general look at rape in India, where a woman is assaulted every 20 minutes, and 90% of sexual assaults go unreported. That film, which was then called “Send Us Your Brother,” was to have focused on the rape awareness group The Srijan Foundation, which does important outreach work educating the public about the importance of reporting sexual assault. But when Pahuja found Ranjit and Kiran, she knew she had found her story.
Given the stigma attached to female rape victims in Indian society, it is remarkable that Kiran, now an adult, agreed to have her story told. What’s even more courageous is her willingness to allow her face to be shown despite Pahuja’s offer to blur it to protect her identity. Seeing Kiran tell her story directly to us only increases the film’s potent impact and makes our urge to see justice done that much more imperative.
For that to happen, a courage of a very different sort is required from Ranjit, whose decision to press charges and stand by his daughter upends his family life. In the oppressively patriarchal culture of his village of Jkarkand, he is viewed as a traitor by the men who have joined together to protect the rapists. The women in the village are no more understanding, with the growing consensus that since Kiran is shamed anyway, she might as well marry one of her rapists to save face. All villagers appear to agree that the crime should have been kept within the village itself and not brought to the courts.
Worst of all are the local leaders, who initially try to shift the burden to village residents to pressure Ranjit into withdrawing his complaint. But with mounting pressure from The Srijan Foundation and growing public awareness of the case, they are forced to give lip service to Ranjit’s case while throwing little actual weight behind it. One profile of cowardice is Muthalik, the local ward leader who, despite his aviator shades, souped-up motorcycle, and general macho bluster, turns washy-washy when it comes to testifying on the charges, leaving Ranjit to fight the system on his own.
With tensions rising within the village, Pahuja and her crew suddenly become a target, with several villagers, convinced that the outsiders are encouraging Ranjit to pursue the case, threatening Kiran, her mother Jaganti, and Pahuja’s directly, warning them, “This time we’ll let you go, but next time we could kill you.” Threats against Ranjit are just as explicit, with the father of one of the accused rapists promising to murder Ranjit if he proceeds with the case. Still, Ranjit and Kiran move forward, placing their (potentially misguided) faith in the Indian justice system.
Pahuja sets a leisurely pace in the film’s early going, contributing to the film’s 2-hour-plus runtime that could use some trimming, particularly in the film’s occasionally repetitious second act. But once the threats begin and the trial takes center stage, “To Kill a Tiger” becomes a gripping courtroom drama. As the outcome largely hinges on Kiran’s testimony and whether a woman can be believed in this matter, the verdict in the case is very much in doubt until the trial’s final moments.
With a courageous father and daughter at its center and a first-rate director at its helm, “To Kill a Tiger” strikingly dramatizes the importance of victims of sexual assault coming forward as the only way that attitudes and the law can be changed. What of the future? Kiran wants to fall in love, but in the end, she asks a haunting question: “How will I explain to him what happened to me?”