Nisha Pahuja set out to make a film about male consciousness-raising on gender issues in India, then found herself in the middle of a case of child rape. She tells Screen how the victim’s courageous family inspired her to tell their story in To Kill A Tiger.

Nisha Pahuja_Credit_Mrinal- Desai

Source: Mrinal Desai

Nisha Pahuja

News of the Academy Awards does not usually filter through to the rural village in India’s Jharkhand state where farmer Ranjit lives with his wife Jaganti. But this year was different.

Ranjit is the focus of Nisha Pahuja’s documentary To Kill A Tiger, which charts his fight to see justice served on three men who sexually assaulted the couple’s daughter when she was just 13 years old. At Sundance when the nominations were announced, Pahuja was catapulted straight into a mosh pit of media interviews. But when she finally managed to talk to Ranjit, “He gave me the most beautiful, eloquent quote,” she recalls. “He said, ‘It’s like casting light onto darkness.’” This despite Ranjit’s admission, she adds, that “he didn’t know a lot about the Oscars, except that they were a big deal”.

Ranjit was not supposed to be the film’s main focus. Pahuja, born in New Delhi but raised in Toronto, had originally planned to make a film about masculinity in India that would intertwine a pair of stories. She was in contact with the Srijan Foundation, a Jharkhand-based NGO that, as part of its work on gender justice in the region, had launched a consciousness-­raising project targeting men and boys. “So my initial idea was to film a couple of the men that the foundation was working with, to track their transformation,” she explains.

Ranjit had participated in this gender-­sensitisation programme before the event that shook the family’s life, one that took place following a family wedding, when Kiran (a pseudonym given to protect her identity) was dragged into the woods by three of the male guests — one of whom was her cousin — and raped.

“Normally,” Pahuja reflects, “as a documentary director you spend a long time doing research, you find the people that you’re going to film, you develop relationships, you get them comfortable on camera.” Instead, she and her camera crew literally walked in on the story, a few days after the rape, while following a Srijan Foundation operative who had been sent to talk to the family and report back. The director admits that it was “a fraught, ethically complex, emotional situation for all of us”.

To Kill A Tiger highlights the strain on a family, and a man, who face intense pressure from their community to drop charges and come to an arrangement with Kiran’s assailants — by marrying her off to one of them. In a country where, as an end title informs us, more than 90% of rapes go unreported, to go public is a mark of shame, and Kiran, the victim, is seen as somehow complicit.

Even the trial defence lawyer — a woman — goes on the record in the film as saying that “a boy will only be naughty if a girl encourages him”. Given the climate, it is hardly surprising that Ranjit and Jaganti were initially wary of the director and her small crew.

“We didn’t know whether they were ever going to relax and be open with us,” says Pahuja. But then, about three months in, “that wall went down, and we became very close. In fact, I would say this is probably the most intimate film that I have ever made”.

Even then, Pahuja was not sure what film she had in the can on returning to Canada. As the edit started, she still saw the story of Ranjit, Kiran and the gang rape as the backbone of a broader feature-length film — or perhaps a series — on masculinity, one that wove in stories of other men that she and the crew had followed.

“All of the footage we shot was very powerful, so it was hard to let it go,” she explains. But two years into the edit, the director realised that “it just wasn’t working”. At this point, she showed the five-hour assembly to two editors whom she and her producers trusted — and both told her to “focus on Ranjit and the family”. Eventually, she says, “We pivoted, and it was hard… but I’m so glad we did.”

One of the tensest scenes in a documentary that also plays like a suspenseful thriller comes when the villagers — who have already ostracised Ranjit and the family for refusing to back down from their pursuit of justice — turn on the film crew itself. After a standoff, an uneasy truce is restored. The director admits that at quite an early stage, she and the crew were “forced to acknowledge we were affecting the action, and becoming part of the story”.

Human response


Source: TIFF

‘To Kill A Tiger’

Rather than fight to remain a distant observer, Pahuja opted to “lean into the fact that we couldn’t extricate ourselves, and address the ethical questions that raises”. A caption informs us that Kiran stayed with the film crew on the night before the trial in the state capital, Ranchi. “I felt very protective of her,” says the director, “and when you’re in those sorts of situations, your responsibility as a human being supersedes everything.”

This involvement not only with her subjects but with the causes the film embraces extends to the way To Kill A Tiger has been and will be shown. Pahuja’s previous feature documentary The World Before Her, about the limited choices facing women in contemporary India, was sent on a consciousness-raising tour of the subcontinent thanks to the support of independent filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, almost two years after its 2012 Tribeca debut.

To Kill A Tiger, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, has also taken a while to build a head of steam, but whatever happens at the Dolby Theatre on March 10, it is already assured an international rollout. A whirlwind tour of North America that began last October was boosted by an Oscar-­nomination-fuelled return to select US theatres in early February. Elsewhere, a film distributed globally by the National Film Board of Canada will leverage its partnership with gender justice organisation Equality Now to, as the director puts it, “bring men into the fold and get them to understand that this is not a women’s-rights issue, it’s a human-rights issue”, as well as to ensure that “all the systems that survivors have to navigate in order to achieve justice are sensitised and understand what it means to be a survivor of sexual violence”.

To Kill A Tiger boasts an impressive list of executive producers, including actor and filmmaker Dev Patel, doctor and writer Atul Gawande and fellow filmmaker Deepa Mehta. Pahuja is grateful for their support, but is keen to stress that without the family at the heart of the film, it would never have been made. Ranjit, she now realises, was not only her principal subject, but also, in a way, her teacher. “The editing process became more and more about the rhythm of his daily life, who he was as a person, and his face, which speaks volumes,” she explains. “He was the one who told us what the film needed to be.”

Now an adult, Kiran has moved away from the village; her parents still live there. But in the years since the rape and the trial, says Pahuja, “the tensions have abated and the rift has healed — for the most part”. However, she is convinced real change will not come until the deeply patriarchal culture changes. On this, she is both cautiously optimistic and realistic. “Change is happening in India,” the director asserts. “But there’s still a long way to go”.