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To Kill a Tiger

Directed by Nisha Pahuja
Produced by David Oppenheim
Written by Nisha Pahuja
Cinematography: Mrinal Desai
Editing: Mike Munn and David Kazala
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Runtime: 125 min
Release Date: 10 February 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, whose prior film, The World Before Her, explored the lives of two young girls pursuing dreams in her native India, returns with this intimate documentary about the inner workings of a farming village in rural Jharkhand, India. The story centers on a farmer named Ranjit, who, when he learned that his 13-year-old daughter had been brutally gang raped by three older boys on the way home after a wedding party, sought legal action against the assailants and demanded justice for his child. The decision of the father to "bring shame on his village" by supporting his daughter via the criminal court rather than just marrying her off to one of the boys, which would "remove the stain on her," is virtually unheard of in this rural culture. All the men and women around this family believe that it should be up to the community to solve matters like this, but Ranjit believes the rapists should serve time in prison for their crimes rather than sentence his daughter to live with one of her attackers. With the help of an Indian-based advocacy organization that is trying slowly change the culture around rape from the inside, Ranjit, his daughter, and the rest of his family begin the long, difficult process of pursuing justice in the face of backlash, ostracization, and even death threats from their neighbors.

The filmmakers face many challenges in attempting to make this story cinematic. Though Pahuja and her crew are Indian, they are viewed as outsiders by the community, which grows more and more hostile to their presence as anger towards Ranjit and his family intensifies. But the major challenge here is what to put on screen. Pahuja does not resort to reenactments or flashy animation to explore the story. This documentary is made up almost entirely of conversations—some are interviews with the participants by the filmmakers, others are exchanges Ranjit has with authority figures, family members, and the people working for the organization that's trying to help him navigate the legal system.

This is a story of a sexual assault in which we never witness the incident. It's a courtroom drama where we don't go inside the court. It's an exploration of the inner workings of a highly insulated society's hive mind where all of the deliberation and processing of information occurs off-screen; we only see the occasional result of conversations we're not privy to, and even these results are themselves conversations. Thus, you might think To Kill a Tiger would not be an especially captivating documentary, but Pahuja and her subjects make this a compelling and upsetting picture. The bravery it takes for a simple man like Ranjit to go against the long-standing traditions of the only culture he's ever known and of his daughter to consent (once she turned eighteen) to have this film released is difficult for a contemporary Western viewer to comprehend. Yet the movie conveys these feelings to us with just the right amount of inherent rage and frustration with the acceptance of rape culture in an area where sexual assault is common and an estimated 90% of rapes go unreported. It's an infuriating picture because of the issue it tackles, yet it's a film that strikes an optimistic note because of the individuals at its center.

Twitter Capsule:

Nisha Pahuja tackles the thorny issue of rape culture in rural India with this story of a farmer going outside village customs to pursue legal justice for his 13-year-old daughter after she is gang raped. While the documentary that primarily consists of conversations, this is a compelling, upsetting, and well-made film.