Ethical dilemmas mar To Kill a Tiger’s powerful story of a rape survivor’s courage

‘To Kill a Tiger’, a documentary directed and written by Nisha Pahuja, caused ripples with its Oscar nominations as well as debates around legal and ethical violations.
A still from Nisha Pahuja's documentary 'To Kill a Tiger'
A still from Nisha Pahuja's documentary 'To Kill a Tiger'NFB
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Warning: Contains spoilers

Since its nomination for the 2024 Oscars and release on Netflix in India, To Kill a Tiger has garnered awe for its rare story – a poor father in a Jharkhand village standing up for his 13-year-old daughter, as the criminal trial unfolds against her three rapists. The family’s harrowing experience, including the threats from the community and tribulations of the criminal justice system, are contrasted against the quiet but firm courage Ranjit and his daughter Kiran (a pseudonym the film uses for the teenage survivor) display. But even as a well-intentioned and powerful story, the film also raises serious questions about the ethics of filmmaking, and the seemingly empowered decisions made by survivors that defy protective laws.

In April 2017, Kiran was sexually assaulted by three boys at a family wedding. Her parents filed a police complaint the next day, defying the village’s belief that the matter should be solved “internally.” The infuriating “compromise” offered, backed by the local police, was for one of the assailants to marry Kiran. Ranjit and his wife Jaganti pursued criminal justice with the support of a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Srijan Foundation. The documentary follows the family over three years, including their journey through a 14-month expedited trial. 

Ranjit, the thin, soft-spoken father of Kiran and her siblings, is the clear protagonist in To Kill a Tiger. Ranjit speaks with simplicity and candour, standing by his resolve to support his daughter despite social and financial struggles. 

The most distressing – and revealing – parts of the documentary are where we witness the conversations within the community about the incident. The emphasis on honour and compromise isn’t surprising, but the matter-of-fact way in which men and women alike make victim-shaming statements can be shaking. “They (Kiran’s family) also belong within this community, they must compromise for their own protection,” one resident says, for instance, alluding casually to the very real threats the family faced for continuing down the legal path. These scenes effectively deliver a sickening punch to the gut, revealing why sexual violence prevails and complaints are often subdued.

The most poignant scenes depict how the family’s grief and trauma co-exist with support and kinship. Kiran admits feeling like she was not a “good girl” and must have been “foolish” to be targeted. Ranjit expresses shame for failing to protect his family's “honour” and fear for their safety. But we also see the family experience lighter moments and talk about the assault almost in passing. It is heartening to see sexual violence not being framed as something that reduces her worth in her family’s eyes, something because of which she must now act meeker. Kiran wonders, for instance, how she would tell someone she falls in love with about what happened. Her concern reveals her internalised shame but she is also imagining falling in love, which speaks to the support and openness she received as every survivor should.

The utility of using a pseudonym for her name is questionable, since Kiran’s face is shown in To Kill a Tiger. The filmmakers say that Kiran, upon seeing her 13-year-old self on film for the first time after she turned 18, consented to her face being shown in the documentary. But it still raises ethical concerns, and notably violates the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act that mandates protecting identities of minor victims of sexual crimes. 

Even if you concede that it was an informed choice she made as an adult of 18, the fact remains that with the case still in High Court, the witnesses and excerpts revealed in the film could pose a risk to the judicial outcome. As a viewer, I felt torn between the director’s justification of not wanting to “perpetuate the prejudice that the film was critiquing” after Kiran’s consent, and wishing for more discretion where a vulnerable teenager is involved. 

For example, there is a scene where Kiran is reciting the events of that night in detail as she prepares for her testimony the following day. Why must we know the details of the assault to sympathise with Kiran? The fact that it happened when it shouldn’t have should be enough to feel enraged. This scene in particular feels voyeuristic, especially because it is a teenage Kiran we see and not the 18-year-old who could consent.

There are various ways to give voice to a survivor without showing her face, and this certainly could have been done in Kiran’s case. But to truly protect her identity, Ranjit and Jaganti’s faces should also have been concealed, which arguably could have made the film less effective. 

Nisha Pahuja revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that she met the family through the Srijan Foundation. She was following the organisation as it implemented its gender sensitisation program in Jharkhand, where Ranjit was one of the enrollees. Although Nisha says there was no hesitation on Ranjit’s part as the family was grateful for the NGO’s support during the case, she told Nikkei Asia that it took four months for the family to truly open up to her. The filming crew’s continued visitations to the village increased the pressure and hostility the family was facing, which we can see in the film too. Ranjit says in the film that though he does feel the fear and pressure, it is his young daughter’s determination that gives him strength.

Nisha said she kept checking with the family to ensure they didn’t feel pressured to continue with the legal route because of the filming, but one wonders if Ranjit and his family may have faced lesser pressure from their community if they weren’t being filmed. 

“Justice” is talked about by many people in the film, including the gender rights activists who want Ranjit’s case to be an example, lawyers who are concerned with legal outcomes, and the mukhiya (panchayat head) and village residents who want a “compromise”. But Ranjit and Kiran don’t explicitly discuss it. The process is punishing enough for the family, as is the ostracisation. 

Kiran says that she feels relief after she gives her testimony. Although Ranjit is visibly happy after a favourable verdict, telling Kiran she won, their safety remains a concern. While the family’s courage is laudable and even led to more women reporting sexual crimes in the area, I wonder what “justice” truly is for a crime as dehumanising as rape, given the lasting emotional scars and social repercussions faced by the survivors. 

Kiran is now 21, and lives away from the village as she trains to become a police officer. To Kill a Tiger raises important questions about the complexities of seeking justice and the ethics of documenting such stories. In a world where it takes a village to raise a child and another to silence one, Kiran’s story also reminds us of children’s incredible resilience, and the difference loved ones’ trust and support can make to sexual violence survivors.

Disclaimer: This article was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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