It all starts with Thinking Equal

Leslee Udwin
Leslee Udwin, the BAFTA award-winning producer of East is East, and the Producer / Director of India's Daughter, talks about her work, her journey as a filmmaker and her all new initiative, Think Equal.  

Tell us a bit about your life - your childhood, growing years, education and career motivations.
I was born in Israel. When I was 3, a film crew shot part of a movie in the house next door to mine. My mother tells me that I knocked on the door, disturbed their filming, and asked for a job. The cameraman ‘adopted’ me and I was allowed to watch shooting. The dye was cast; from that time I was determined to be an actor. When I was 9, my father took the family to South Africa. I went to school and university there – and did a Drama Honours Degree at Johannesburg’s main university. Much about life in South Africa was shocking for a young mind that had come into a rigid system run on the bizarre notion that skin colour is the determinant of value and of one’s fate in life. I remember being utterly shocked one day, sitting in the tiny box room of our maid, Elizabeth, as I asked her questions about where her family was and why she doesn’t live with them. They were in a rural area so many miles away that she could only go home to see her children twice a year. In 1976, while I was at university, the brutal white South African police force slaughtered unarmed young black children and youth in Soweto’s ‘township’, to smash riots. This left an indelible imprint of anger in my heart – and an understanding at a young age that life is brutal, unjust and unfair. The Indian caste system is no different from the system of apartheid which has now been dismantled in South Africa – and yet the world turns a blind eye to India’s systemised inequity. I simply have to ask - why is that? Why are there no sanctions against India, as there were against South Africa, (and successfully so),  to encourage it to abandon its immoral and despicable caste system, which dooms vast swathes of its population to poverty, abuse, and lack of opportunity?

I was determined to study drama at university. My father, a die-hard patriarch, decided law was what I was born for, and refused to support me financially unless I studied law. So I worked my way through university. I had graduated from my high school with 6 As and a B, and had been head girl at the school, and so I managed to persuade the principal to allow me to teach the first lesson of the morning, so I could earn some money. I would rush off to university after my early morning teaching job, and just make it in time for my lectures. When I left University, there were only two theatres in the whole country I could work in, because they were the only ‘multi-racial theatres’ in South Africa. I went to work at one them, the Space Theatre in Cape Town. A play I was in there was banned – ironically enough it was a play about censorship. I played the title role in the Duchess of Malfi and would, in all likelihood, have had a great career there, but I couldn't stay. I was torn between political morality and personal ambition. I would hand out leaflets on ‘blacks only’ station platforms, where I ran the risk of arrest, and I realised that although the theatre I worked in was non-segregated, audiences were still predominantly white only in practice, and it seemed to me, impossible to influence outcomes in that fascist-run society by working in theatre. And yet that  (the theatre) was then my first and only love. So I left South Africa at 20, and moved to London. I had to fund my own way because my father was still refusing to support me if I continued to “waste my life” as an actress. My need to prove that I was right and he was wrong, and my need to make my own living did motivate me in a good way. But I always felt residual resentment and disappointed at my father’s limited vision and lack of emotional support for me.

I had a great theatre career in London, playing leading roles at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Court, amongst others. I was privileged enough to act with amazing British actors – Alan Rickman, Harriet Walter and Sir Alec Guinness among others. And then one day, acting wasn’t enough for me. Motivated by a real life struggle I had with a psychopath criminal landlord, during which I and a small group of courageous tenants managed to set a precedent in the High Court of England, I decided to become a producer. It was the need to communicate an important story that motivated the change.  I decided to turn the real life struggle and its victorious, optimistic outcome, into a film. I wrote a treatment and sent it to a producer whose work I admired. He agreed to make it for BBC Screen 2, and I worked with the writer on the screenplay, and watched and learnt the ropes of producing. The first film I produced alone was “Who Bombed Birmingham?”, a campaigning film starring John Hurt, for Granada / HBO, which directly led to the release of  6 innocent Irishmen from 17 years of wrongful imprisonment.  And my first feature film was “East is East” (starring Om Puri). That is when my love affair with India began.

I became a director for India’s Daughter, and that film, in turn, has motivated me to now become a human rights activist. So that’s 4 careers in one pretty exhausting lifetime so far. Thank heavens my husband, Kim, is a wonderful enlightened man who understands that love and marriage are a partnership in which one partner supports the other, and there should be no gender lines drawn in who does what, including staying home to take care of our two kids.

What inspired your decision to shoot India's Daughter? What was the emotional and personal thought process behind the decision?
The motivation was entirely emotional, and visceral. If I had thought rationally about it, I think I would have not gone the distance. By pure coincidence, about 2 weeks before the news of the gang rape of Jyoti Singh had hit the TV screens around the world, I had said to my husband in the kitchen one evening while we were (both!) chopping vegetables, that I felt it was time I made another film that changed things – like The Birmingham Six film and East is East had done. And I did say “and this time it has to be about women”. When I heard the news on the morning of December 17, 2012, my stomach turned, of course, but I didn’t think “oh this is a case I must make a film about”. I just thought: “here we are again, another brutal gang rape reported somewhere in the world – how on earth will this relentless cycle stop?” And then, something utterly amazing happened over the ensuing days. 

Men and women in vast numbers poured out onto the streets, and kept on going for days and weeks. I had never seen anything like this degree of passion and activism and commitment for women’s rights. When the government stupidly decided to crack down on these peaceful protesters, (as patriarchal governments tend to do when they fear unrest and see challenges to their failings), with lathi charges and water canons and tear gas shells, I knew I had to go and make a film about this. I fell in love with those protesters. I believed they heralded a real change on the horizon, and that this was like “an Arab spring” for gender equality. I was rashly optimistic of course, but that’s what took me to India to make the film, a desire to amplify and support the voices of those protesters. It was my way of joining the protests. The truth is that if those protests had happened in any other country about any other case that involved a violation of women’s or girls’ rights, I would have gone to that country to make the film about that case, and that protest. What is so utterly ironic about the ban is that the motivation to make the film was in praise of India’s men and women who led the world by example in those protests.


Once I decided, I called my family together in the living room for a family meeting and announced that I wanted to go to India and make this important film which I believed would help women campaign for their rights and to stop violence against them. I particularly addressed my youngest child, my daughter Maya, who was 13 at the time and I knew needed a mother at her side. I said: “Maya, you are the most important person in my life and I recognise you are at the age where you need me. If you tell me not to go, because you need me, I won’t go.” Before she answered, I added: “But you need to also know that if I don’t go, I will find it hard to look myself fin the mirror, feeling as strongly as I do, and not taking action.” Pure emotional blackmail, I see in retrospect, and very unfair. But Maya insisted that I go and was,and continues to be, hugely supportive throughout the 3 years I have been more absent, than there for her.

What did you think of the reactions you received to the film, particularly from India?
I was extremely shocked and hurt by them. They seemed to be so utterly illogical, misguided, and simply wrong. There were certain shocks I don’t think I’ll ever recover form: being told by one of the respected Indian so-called feminists that “a group of 20 Indian feminists (including Vrinda Grover, Indira Jaisingh, Kavita Krishnan, Devki Jai, Urvashi Buthalia) had called for the ban, and that without them alerting the Home Ministry to stop the broadcast, the film may not have been banned at all. Then, finding the Home Minister so utterly badly informed by his research team about my prison permissions, and seeing hysterical MPs in the Lok Sabha screaming about the gori's “conspiracy to shame India” and how I was going to “decimate India’s tourist industry”. Then finding nasty trolls, mostly men, from India sending me tweets and FB messages like “white bitch you deserve to be raped...” It was hugely disappointing and dispiriting. I had already had a pretty bleak view of the human heart and what it’s capable of during my 31 hours of interviews with the rapists and, perhaps even worse, my 9 hours of interviews with their lawyers… That would have been quite enough depression and disappointed in humanity to last a lifetime without the circus of responses from the Indian government, feminists, and trolls… But having said that, the vast and overwhelming majority of reactions from India were hugely supportive  and continue to be. Certainly the Indians living abroad are completely enlightened and supportive – with only a tiny minority feeling defensive and that they have to defend their country’s image. But it seems that the Modi BJP government with its fundamentalist nationalist parent RSS, has a new division for the Indian population: “nationalist” and “anti-nationalist”, and the country is being ruled divisively now on those lines. This means that even those in support of the film within India, dare not speak out. This is extremely worrying and extremely dangerous. India was a striving democracy, but that is no longer the case.

Shooting a film that had so many nuances and elements to it - particularly the emotions and the raw pain of just how terrible the incident was - must have evoked your own pain. How did you deal with that challenge? 
In truth I don’t think I have fully dealt with it yet. I have been going non-stop for over 3 years now – sleeping very little (3 hours a night for the 2 years while making the film and not a lot more now). Straight after the film I started campaigning on the road relentlessly, then started an NGO and a very ambitious global initiative THINK EQUAL (please click on the link and find out more about it and support it ). This is a really new and innovative idea, which demands a system change in the way we educate children. And it’s an idea whose time has definitely come. In a nutshell it’s to educate children’s hearts and not just their heads. I believe it is the only solution to the cycle of violence across our world). So I haven’t time to deal with the psychological pain or trauma of what I learned on my filming journey. At the time, I seemed able to deal it with it (for the most part), because I was getting to understand the reasons why this happens. When I sat with those rapists for 31 hours, including one who had raped a five year old girl, I couldn’t feel anger (which is what I was expecting to feel). I was expecting to feel anger, primarily because I myself had been raped at 18, and I thought the trauma would well up inside me. But it didn’t. Anger didn’t surface. It was not an appropriate emotion given what was so clearly laid out before me, which was that these men had been programmed to think they as they think. They had been handed a set of attitudes towards women so clear, so utterly black and white and confidently held, that they may as well have been handed rape manuals at the age of 12. And there were no interventions – no one to tell them that a girl is actually of value, and wanted in this world, and worthy of respect and education. Where were they to learn that from? The examples they saw all around them, the hard evidence, was that girls were unwelcome burdens, their fathers beat their mothers, their brothers beat their wives, How do we expect them to behave when they’re taught such things by their culture and society? We are to blame for their attitudes and their actions which have been informed by those attitudes. No amount of trying to distance ourselves form them by calling them monster and meting out the death penalty to them, can change that fact. I did have one major breakdown in my Delhi hotel room, not long after I had interviewed the rapist of the 5 year old. Pressure at the time was huge  and I woke up in a total panic, sweating and shaking. I thought I either needed to get into a hospital or to get home. I called home to ask my husband for help and to book me on a flight back I really wanted to end the nightmare and difficulty of doing this film. Luckily my daughter answered the phone and talked me down off the panic attack and said: “Mummy you are not coming home because I and my generation of girls are relying on you.” She was thirteen and a half when she said that. I stayed and finished the film.

What kind of challenges / backlashes did you face after the movie released? How did you deal with them? 
The first I heard about the ban, I was in India, cutting the Indian version of the film for NDTV. I had to, for example, remove the name “Jyoti Singh” from the film because Indian law prohibits the name of a rape survivor or victim being named. And I was there to publicise the film for its NDTV screening on the March 8 – International Women’s Day. The first I heard about the ban was at a press screening we were holding for media. A young journalist came up to me and showed me a mobile phone text she had just got form a colleague: “the film has been banned and there’s a warrant out for the filmmaker’s arrest.” She warned me that I should leave the country. I started phoning all the lawyers I knew and had been working with in India (7 of them), asking advice. Every one of them, except the last one I called, said: “go straight to the airport and leave, don’t even collect your suitcase.” I kept calling another and another because I wanted to hear different advice. My instincts were to stay. I was appalled, Howdare they ban the film and arrest me? On what grounds? I had done nothing wrong and I should stand my ground. The 7th lawyer said something different. He said: “Do not go to the airport.” At last I thought the advice I want to hear. But then he continued: “Drive to Nepal and leave from there. They'll be waiting for you at the airport.” My editor, who was with me, always loyally at my side,  was weeping and terrified, begging me to leave. I decided to stay. My flight which had originally been booked was leaving 26 hours hence. I thought that in the meanwhile I would go on NDTV panels and defend the film and challenge their decision to ban it and point out how wrong they were. I also thought that if I were to be brought to court ,I might need to prove that I didn’t try “to evade justice” by leaving earlier than I had originally booked to leave before the ban. I didn't tell my family. When I left the next evening, on my original booking, there were crews outside the airport departures doors. I covered my head in my scarf, put sunglasses on and went a long way round through arrivals, in order to evade the crews. I was later told that the police had arrived with pictures of me at the house I had been staying in, half an hour after I had left.

As a filmmaker, you are, undoubtedly a storyteller. What goes into your way of telling a story?
Well, each story is unique and will require a different way of telling it so that its compelling truth emerges in the best way. Ultimately I am most fascinated by what makes people tick and seeing things from their point of view, taking their perspectives as aspects of the truth, is what film particularly does best. It takes the viewer on an empathetic journey in which we see the world through the eyes of the ‘other’ or several  ‘others’.  There is no greater act of generosity than doing that. Seeing the world through another’s eyes and experience.

When I set out to make India’s Daughter I was very thoughtful about what the film was, its purpose, its imperatives. I had never directed before, and so I needed to be as clear as possible before I set off  as to what my actual purpose was in making the film. I knew I needed to do 3 things: 1) Make a campaigning film that put the impassioned protests at its centre – as the recurring heartbeat of the film. So that the film would be a campaigning film  which would stir awareness of the issue of violence against women globally and inspire people to protest, like the Indian protesters had so admirably done. 2) My early research into all that had been written and broadcast about the young woman who had been gang-raped and murdered, made it clear that there was nothing at all, apart from one sentence. We only knew that she was “a 23 year old medical student who had gone to see a movie with a friend at night”. She was reduced to a statistic, without a name. I found that hard to accept. What were her dreams, aspirations? Her experiences and thoughts about women in her society? Who was she? What would she likely have gone on to do in life had she not been so callously violated and murdered? I knew I wanted the film to be a tribute to her and for us to get to know who she was and whom we had lost through this brutal act. And 3) I knew I had to interview those rapists and find out what goes on in the heads of men who do this? Without understanding them, there’s no hope of changing them. I also knew that I didn’t want to be in the film, either as interviewer or narrator. I wanted the direct participants in the story to tell the story from their viewpoints. This was partly a recognition of the fact that I was ‘an outsider’ in this culture and could observe it and examine it, but certainly didn't want to comment on it in the course of the film. And partly because I actually hate it when the filmmaker inserts him or herself into the documentary as though they are remotely interesting – it detracts from the story and I think is kind ofarrogant.  I also hate it when a narrator leads an audience by the nose and tells it what to think and fills in bits of the story… I favour films that compel an audience to watch them, that tell their story in an exciting and powerful way. And since I wanted to make a campaigning film, it was also important that it should be tight and focused and emotionally involving. In any event, I have feature film or drama sensibilities, because those are my ‘default instincts’. I worked very hard on the music, for instance,  with the composer, searching for months for the right piece of music that accurately expressed each theme. In particular the music which was the theme for the rapists – which needed to be the deepest most sonorous sound ‘of the depths of pity’ for the world that contains these men. Because that was what I felt when I was with them. The composer Krsna worked tirelessly and loyally to get the music right, He is so talented and was absolutely committed to this film. As is Anuradha Singh, the editor who gave her all to this work, and Riddhi Jha, my angel associate producer. All dedicated, talented, brilliant and amazing people.

What do you see as some of the biggest factors that continue to encourage gender-based violence? Why, in your opinion, haven't we been effective in addressing the issue so far?
Socio-cultural programming is what continues to allow gender-based violence to thrive unabated. Culture is much more powerful than law. The laws are there but the culture often prevents their implementation. Take one example: it is illegal to give and receive dowry. A fairly recent protective law. Why? Because dowry was leading to violence against brides – to what were called “dowry deaths”.  There were cases where the bridegroom’s family weren’t satisfied with gifts from the bride’s family, so they’d kill her and take another wife for their son, with another dowry….. Now that it’s been made illegal, has dowry stopped? Absolutely not. The majority of Indians continue to give and take dowry, This makes them criminals who should be arrested and imprisoned. Culture, mindset, is the biggest factor and indeed the root cause of gender-based, and indeed any other kindof discriminatory violence (racial, religious…)
We haven’t been effective to date because we are dealing with it in a very short-sighted way, We are looking to alleviate the symptoms and deal with fallout after the event, instead of looking to eradicate theroot cause. We are bandaging the wounds instead of operating on the tumour that causes the wound. We need to focus on PREVENTION. And there is only one way to prevent this cycle of violence and discrimination – education. But it’s not ‘education’ as we know it – it’s neither “access to education” nor the kind of education we’re so obsessed with: numeracy, literacy and test results. I am talking about the kind of education that teaches values and emotional intelligence, empathy, critical thinking, perspective taking and conflict resolution…. And these can’t be taught by ‘instructions’ – in other words it’s not about telling kids “you must be respectful”. They have to be taught experientially – and they have to practise this. Particular in the early years when the child’s attitudes and character are forming at an incredibly rapid rate. And when attitudes and behaviour can still be influenced to the good. Mandela said: “children are not born hating. And Ifthey can learn to hate, then they can be taught to love”. Aristotle said: “Education of the head without education of the heart, is no education at all”. These are 2 very inspiring quotes for me and were instrumental in the foundational thinking behind THINK EQUAL.

There is a lot of talk about masculinities of violence and toxic masculinities that are explained as underlying the phenomenon of gender based violence. What do you think of it? Would you believe that toxic masculinities underlie the phenomenon of GBV?
What underlies ALL violence in the world, be it gender-based, religious, racial or other, is a discriminatory mind-set which ascribes lesser or no value to the ‘other’ in each case.  It’s utterly simple: if you have no respect for and place no value on a living creature because she is a girl, or he is an infidel, or they are of the wrong tribe, or it is ‘just a cow’ then you are disposed to treat it as a ‘thing’ and commit violence upon it.  The ‘cow’ is sacred in India, but in the rest of the world it is treated as a commodity to be encaged, raped, inseminated, milked, and slaughtered for the trillion dollar beef industry. If you look at how cows are treated by us in the beef industry, it is easy to see how mind-set informs casual violence. The same is true with people.  When a young boy is raised seeing evidence all around him that a girl is ‘less important’ than he is, that she is destined to become a domestic slave one day, to take care of him, feed him, clean his house and bear and take care of his children. There is a sense of entitlement and power and superiority that make violence against women and girls easy. What are toxic masculinities? They are the expression of a mindset that has existed since time immemorial that believes that men are superior and should be the decision makers, the rulers. Until that changes., until and unless we have gender equality, violence against women and girls will continue.

What are you working on currently? How can young women world over join your efforts in telling truths that the world must hear? 
I have been a filmmaker for some 20 years.  I love filmmaking. It’s my passion and I believe with all my heart that film is a powerful tool for change. However, India’s Daughter gave me such blindingly clear insights into what the problem is – globally – that it also gave me a completely clear view of hat the solution is. I can’t now just turn my attention to another subject and make another film about something else, when I know what action needs to be taken. SO, uncomfortable and inconvenient as it is to me, I have now become a human rights activist. I have started an NGO and have committed myself to THINK EQUAL. With my brilliant colleague, Education Director, Helen Lumgair, and with a global committee of world experts in social emotional learning, we are designing, constructing and delivering a tangible curriculum for the Early Years (ages 3-7) of lesson plans, concrete exercises and activities (160 such lesson plans a year for 3 year olds next year, for example)  – which will be delivered over 4 x half hour lessons per week. We have pilots committed (including in India) across 14 countries. Please click on this link if you’re interesting in reading more.

How can people join our efforts? Well, in 2 significant ways: 1) They can donate on this link and they can fund raise.- encourage their friends to donate. You’ll be amazed how impossible it is to fund start-ups through foundations which profess to fund the sort of work we’re doing. If people give up 3 coffees a month, and pledge the price of those 3 coffees to THINK EQUAL – they’d be supporting world change directly. All donations go to the direct costs of building the curriculum. and 2) They can advocate for THINK EQUAL amongst parents and journalists, opinion shapers and politicians. We should all be demanding that we widen out the education of our children to enable them to lead productive, peaceful, respectful and empowered lives.


To watch India's Daughter on Demand, click hereAll rental fees for India's Daughter also go to fund the education campaign.
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