NEW DELHI: A rapist in a brown and white check shirt staring impassively into the camera, speaking sotto voce that Nirbhaya, the victim of the December 16, 2012, gangrape, had asked for it. A 57-year-old British film producer and actress Leslee Udwin, who picturised him inside the infamous Tihar Jail here, is lamenting the fact that the Indian government has banned her documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ and muzzled the freedom of expression. A missing film producer named Anjali Bhushan. A newborn film company named Tathagath under whose banner Leslee produced the documentary and has left no traces of its existence. The finacier of ‘India’s Daughter’, Tribeca Film Institute which is funded by Ford Foundation, a body under the scanner of Indian agencies for funding PRS India.
A carefully constructed web of film companies whose presence fade in and out as if through the lens of a camera. Behind the outrage on the social media and the anger of columnists and editorial writers over the ban on the documentary lies a story of deception, circumvention of rules and a host of missing links which suggest that Udwin’s story is not just what it seems to be--a gift to India.
The storm broke after February 27, when the BBC magazine carried an item about the worldwide release of the film, announcing the contents, including an exclusive interview with one of the rapists, Mukesh Singh. A crew numbering four to five people shot interviews of the gangrape convicts inside Tihar Jail in October 2013 after being granted unhindered access for six to seven days by jail authorities. Mysteriously, the arrangements were fixed by an unknown Gurgaon-based photographer, who “happened to know” some jail officials from previous assignments.
The Lady Vanishes
“Dig deep and you will find a scoop behind the making of ‘India’s Daughter’,” claims an intelligence officer involved in the probe into the making of the documentary. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had on March 4 assured Parliament that the government will inquire into the matter. He also clarified that Tihar jail authorities gave permissions for the shoot to Udwin and Bhushan. While Udwin, owner of Assassin Films, last week appeared on all major TV channels crying foul over the ban and hogging the international limelight, Bhushan through whom Udwin got permission to shoot inside Tihar is missing from the film’s credits.
The government rules state that a foreign filmmaker is not allowed entry inside an Indian prison. A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) official, probing any violation of contract in the filming of the documentary claims Udwin partnered an Indian co-producer to circumvent the rule and gain access to the jail premises.
The Home Minister had stated in Parliament that the No Objection Certificate (NoC) was given to Udwin and Bhushan, but the latter’s name is missing from the documentary shown on BBC, prompting the MHA officials to call for all the records pertaining to the documentary shoot from Tihar Jail authorities.
Now comes another twist in the tale. It is learnt that a UK-based financial organisation ‘Worldview’ funded ‘India’s Daughter’ and listed Bhushan as the original co-producer of the documentary. However, after it was released, her name is missing from not only the credits, but also from the web page of the Italian distributor Berta Film and Denmark-based DR Sale, which hold the rights to distribute the documentary.
A Web of Deception
Although, Bhushan could not be reached despite numerous attempts, the officials probing the case pointed out that Udwin has used her name and expertise to make the documentary, which had received huge foreign funding, including money from Tribeca Film Institute.
Investigators are also surprised at‘Tathagat Films’ popping up as the co-producer in the credits of the documentary. They said it appears to be a fraudulent entity created at Udwin’s behest. “Tathagat films is not mentioned in the official papers submitted by the original makers of the documentary which means a mirage was created to hide something on the UK joint venture. ‘Apricot Sky Entertainment’ owned by Bhushan, which was originally mentioned in the papers is now missing from the official credit list. All these complications raise suspicion over the working of the British film maker,” the official said.
Apricot Sky Entertainment, mentioned as the original partner by ‘Worldview’ is registered with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs with Bhushan as one of the directors. However, further investigation into ‘Tathagat films’ added, further, mystery to the plot. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has no records of Tathagat Films, but there are at least three production houses that operate under the same name in Mumbai and Delhi. Arvind Marchande, owner of Mumbai-based ‘Tathagat Films’ refused any association with Udwin or Assassin Films saying he never worked on the documentary. He also told Express that he has never met Udwin. The phone numbers of the two Delhi-based ‘Tathagat Films’ were found to be incorrect.
Sleight of Hand
A MHA official said investigators are also looking into the affairs of an entertainment company, which holds musical events and is perhaps run by a person known to Udwin and others associated with the film. Dibang, a senior journalist is credited as the co-producer in the film. A questionnaire sent to him seeking his response on controversy and ongoing probe remains unanswered.
For a producer, who claimed on TV that she herself was raped once and that she wanted the documentary to be a tribute to Indian women, officials said that strangely she was not even present during the week-long shoot inside Tihar.
“A crew of four to five people interviewed convicts inside their cells. Meanwhile, one of the cameramen quit after a couple of days of shooting and a new person was drafted into the crew. Why a new cameraman came into the scene as shown in the records is yet to be ascertained,” said an official. He also said that the interviewed convict, Mukesh was not comfortable talking to the TV crew, though, he had given a consent letter to the film makers, including Bhushan. When they started, they noticed that nothing much would be forthcoming from Mukesh since he was only replying in monosyllables - ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They crew decided to resort to the ‘sting strategy’.
It is learnt that a cameraperson was asked to roll the camera but pretended that it was switched off. The rapist was inveigled into an informal chat. Unaware that he was being shot, his ugly, unrepentant mindset came to the fore and Udwin could get the sensational quotes, which were used in the film. “He was not speaking, so it was decided to do a sting and use the entire set up to look like a proper interview. It was a long informal interview in which he had mentioned so many things. The crew also interviewed a few other convicts, but till that time Tihar authorities did not know the contents of Mukesh’s bytes. They saw it last year and raised objections,” said an official privy to the developments in the ongoing probe. The official also pointed out that the clothes Mukesh wore during the interview indicated that rules were violated. “If he had been convicted, he would have been wearing prison clothes,” points out a Tihar Jail official.
The MHA had given its NOC to the documentary makers on July 24, 2013. But the consent letter signed by Mukesh is dated October 7, 2013. The shoot duration is still under probe to ascertain whether the four rape accused, who were convicted by the court on September 10, 2013, were facing trial or had been sentenced.
“In both situations, Tihar authorities were responsible for violation of rules,” the official said.
There is also element of secrecy as the film maker’s application is generic in nature. It just seeks interviews of convicts for study and research purposes, while the consent letter (written in English for a convict who doesn’t understand any language other than Hindi) mentions that the consent was for “a documentary cantered on the December 16 Delhi gangrape case”.
Udwin has left India fearing arrest after Delhi Police registered an FIR. She has claimed that she spent two years working on the documentary. The ongoing inquiry contradicts her claim.
“We are examining her travel details to check whether she had obtained a Film maker’s visa or came to India on a tourist visa. Our initial findings suggest that shooting in India was a limited affair and she did not spend two years in India as she had claimed to international TV channels. The entry, stay and exit of foreigners into and from India are governed by the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1992. Documentary filmmakers are issued journalist visas valid for up to six months.
The undertaking to the MEA clearly states that the film maker will have to show the film to a representative of the government, If so required, at least two weeks before final telecast and will work constructively with the government representatives to remove deviations, If any, from the approved scripts of the film. Investigators have asked the MEA and the Bureau of Immigration under the MHA to share the details filed by Udwin while applying for her visa.
Tricking the System
“In most of the cases, foreign filmmakers circumvent the rules by getting a co-producer on the board. They generally come on tourist visas and subsequently hire a production house to do the job. We have asked our London Mission to probe whether Udwin had submitted a synopsis of the documentary while applying for the visa,” a source said adding that so far they have not received any response.
Udwin in her earlier television interviews had denied violating any rules. She had even told some channels that she possessed all the required clearances and perhaps the Home Minister was misinformed.
After the ban of film, Udwin appeared on several International TV channels saying the film was her ‘gift to India’ and she only tried to expose the mindset of rapists and wanted to highlight the country’s zeal to fight crimes against women.
But, an official involved in the probe who is aware of the funding pattern of ‘India’s Daughter’ and knows the filmmaker said Udwin had successfully sold the film to distributors branding “Delhi as rape capital of the world” and “India as society where brutality against women is widespread” as has appeared on their websites.
He also said besides grants received before filming the project, Udwin also successfully marketed the film with the help of distributors. Besides BBC, the film is also slated for release on Passionate Eye, a Canadian documentary TV series, which airs on CBC News Network of Canada.
“Udwin was obliged to come to India for the documentary’s publicity campaign because the agreement with Tribeca. Another one is due in New York,” an MHA official said.
Who is Leslee Udwin?
■ Little known in India before the India’s Daughter controversy, 58-year-old Leslee Udwin produced two feature films East is East and its sequel West is West. According to her LinkedIn profile, Leslee was awarded the London Critics Producer of the Year Award and also won “BAFTA” (British Academy Award) for best British film. She specialises in producing feature films and lecturing on film and film production. According to UK Companies Directory, Leslee floated Assassin Films Limited in 1992.
■ The Home Ministry had alleged that Leslee did not clearly indicate the reason behind the Tihar interview and kept the authorities in the dark. However, Leslee refuted the charges claiming she followed the rules.
■ Currently, Leslee holds three appointments at three active companies—West is West Distribution Ltd, Assassin Films (the One & Only ) Limited and Assassin Films. Earlier she held directorship in five companies that are no longer active.
HOW FOREIGN FILMMAKERS CIRCUMVENT LAW
Months before Home Ministry ordered a probe against Leslee Udwin for violating rules, a look-out circular was issued against two French filmmakers for shooting Jarwa tribe for a documentary film in October 2014 without permission. Andman Police had filed FIR against French director Alexandre Dereims and producer Claire Beilvert after they came know through a feature on Facebook, promoting a documentary “Organic Jarawa”.