When his 13-year-old daughter stumbled home six years ago and told her father that she had been gang-raped, Ranjit embarked on a mission to get justice in a manner that is almost unheard of in rural India.
Going against the wishes of the entire village in the eastern state of Jharkhand, and challenging India’s highly patriarchal culture, the rice farmer reported the crime to the authorities and pursued the case relentlessly until the three men were brought to trial.
Their story is told in To Kill a Tiger, a documentary by the award-winning Indian-Canadian director Nisha Pahuja.
The film follows 14 months of the family’s determined pursuit of justice in a country where the “rape culture” makes it rated as the world’s most dangerous place for girls and women, with high rates of sexual assault recorded but where an estimated 99% of rape cases go unreported.
Kiran* was at a wedding on the evening of 9 April 2017. She had stayed behind to dance when her parents returned home. At about midnight, three village men dragged her into the woods and attacked her. Her cousin is among the accused.
As her name has to be concealed by Indian law, the film breaks the norm in showing her onscreen. She is often seen with colourful ribbons in her hair, “a symbol of her innocence, girlhood and resilience,” says Pahuja.
“By the time editing was finished, Kiran was of age and after watching the film with her parents she decided she didn’t want to be hidden,” Pahuja says. “She wanted to come forward and encourage other survivors.”
The family faced deep hostility after Ranjit, who is referred to by his first name only, filed a case against the men. Villagers expected Kiran to marry one of her abusers, as is often the practice.
The film shows the family being ostracised; villagers side with the accused and some mock Ranjit’s perceived failure to protect his daughter.
But the reserved, unassuming farmer and his wife, Jaganti, remain defiant even as the pressure mounts. The film shows Ranjit at times doubting himself, but he says: “When I think of her [Kiran], my fear goes away.”
Pahuja says: “Ranjit is not a vocal person, so everything plays out on his face. He has a terrible ‘poker face’ – you really know what’s going on … He is a very honest human being.”
Pahuja learned of the case while making a film about a Srijan Foundation project on addressing male attitudes towards women. Ranjit was enrolled in the programme.
Social workers from the foundation supported the family and one activist told the film-maker that the case was a “gamechanger”.
“A father fighting for his daughter in a rape case. This is no small thing. It never happens,” says the activist. “This is no ordinary family.”
But a comment by a village elder highlights the scale of the challenge: “This could have been settled in the village,” the woman says. “They already had sex, might as well get them married.”
Pahuja’s documentary follows Ranjit pacing the court building in Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital, where the prosecutor is dealing with about 500 similar cases, but is supportive, despite the investigation not following basic procedures at the crime scene.
As the trial comes closer, villagers threaten Ranjit and become increasingly hostile to the film crew. He is warned by local leaders to drop the case for the sake of village “harmony”.
On the day she gives evidence Kiran puts a bindi on her forehead and dresses in her best clothes. It feels like sitting a school exam, she says.
Pahuja says that legislation was changed after the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus. The Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act was strengthened. “What hasn’t changed quickly enough is the culture,” she says.
“Unless, in India, we start to change the definition of masculinity, unless we start to work with men and boys, the headlines that come out of India and the violence that is inflicted on women in India – and boys in India, frankly – is not going to change. The root cause is the way we raise our sons.”
Pahuja, who is working with the legal rights organisation Equality Now to pressure the courts and police over the issues raised in the film, says one question kept being asked in discussions after screenings: why did Ranjit do what he did?
“Ranjit simply refused to accept the status quo and, because of that, showed us that change is possible,” she says.
* Indian law prevents the publication of the name of sexual assault survivors.
To Kill a Tiger will be screened by the Bertha DocHouse at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, on 16 November