How the Documentary ‘To Kill a Tiger’ Found Its Hero in a 13-Year-Old Rape Survivor

TheWrap magazine: Nisha Pahuja’s film charts a young Indian girl’s astonishing courage and explores the toxic masculinity that enables sexual violence

To Kill a Tiger
"To Kill a Tiger" (Credit: Notice Pictures)

Initially, Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja planned to make a documentary about masculinity in India. But as she filmed in the northeastern state of Jharkhand, following activists from a local gender equality NGO, she met Ranjit, a man seeking justice for his 13-year-old daughter Kiran (not her real name), who had been raped and beaten by three men from their village. The movie relates the family’s perseverance and courage, especially the survivor’s, as they challenged a seemingly intractable legal system and culture — the ferocious tiger of the film’s title. 

We spoke to Pahuja about making the film.

Can you explain how you came to make a documentary about Kiran and the trauma she and her family went through?
I’ve been making films in India around gender for quite some time. It’s been a subject that’s been very interesting for me, both as a person who comes from that cultural background and just as somebody who’s interested in exploring why we do the things we do as human beings. So, after the Dehli gang rape [in 2012, when six men sexually assaulted a woman on a bus and beat her so severely that she died from her injuries], I decided that I really wanted to make a film on masculinity and explore why some men become the way they do in that culture.

I began to follow the work of the organization that’s featured in the film, the Srijan Foundation. They were running a gender sensitization program in 30 villages. They were going to be working with men and boys, to teach them a different way of being male. Ranjit was enrolled in that program when this happened to his child, and the Srijan foundation supported his struggle for justice. I started filming the story.

Early in the film, we see how protective the village is of its well-being and how distrustful it is of outsiders. How did you and your crew navigate that? 
I was very aware of the sensitivities around the story and the way that it had created friction and a fraying of the threads that keep the community together. And it was an issue that we were not from that community. What we tried to do to mitigate any kind of fallout was to build bridges with the leadership of the village — the ward member, the mukhiya — and also the villagers themselves. Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we weren’t, and the reason is that they were trying to protect the community’s honor.

India is not a culture that is founded on [serving] the individual. It’s a culture that’s very much based in community, family. So that’s why it was considered a viable option, to maintain the harmony and the peace, to marry her to one of her rapists. I’m not saying that’s an attitude that’s prevalent in [all of] India. But in that particular community, that was the solution. 

"To Kill a Tiger" (Notice Pictures)
Ranjit, the father of the rape survivor, in “To Kill a Tiger” (Notice Pictures)

You explore the community’s deeply ingrained misogyny, even among women, including the female defense attorney who blames the victim for the attack. Of course, these are arguments we still hear in the West, certainly in the States. 
Exactly, exactly. The ward member expresses that not everything boys do is to be blamed. It’s also girls — it’s the way you walk, it’s the way you dress, it’s your makeup. And the defense attorney reiterates that position. She’s echoing that same prejudice, which is also mirrored in Western legal systems. I think that’s partly why women relate so deeply to the film. This is a prejudice that we’ve all experienced, that we’re all aware of. The story might take place in a very specific setting, which is a small community in India, but the larger ideas that it’s grappling with, they’re universal. 

Your presence made an impact on the village, but how did it affect the case itself? Surely the judge was aware there was a film crew documenting everything. 
Oh, absolutely. There’s no denying the role that we played in the story. It’s just inherent in the documentary form. And it’s partly why Ranjit wanted us to keep filming. There were many times when we asked him, “Do you want us to keep going? Or should we stop?” And he kept saying, “We need to keep going.” He knew that having a crew afforded him a kind of protection and safety in the village and that it ensured that he was going to be taken seriously at court. It is so easy to bribe an official, to pay a judge off. He understood that having us around gave his case a kind of legitimacy that he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

In the earlier parts of the film, there are several close-up shots of the ribbons in Kiran’s hair. Those were heartbreaking images. They really underscore the innocence that the rapists stole from her. She was a child.
Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. It became really clear to me that her body — and this is so common for women around the world — our bodies are used as battlegrounds. And that’s what she was like, her body was this battleground around which all of these complex ideas around honor and shame and ownership, culture, identity, masculinity, the role of the father — all of these complex, deeply entrenched ideas were playing themselves out around her. So in the film, it was a very deliberate choice to constantly go to her as the touchstone to underscore the absurdity and the irony of attaching such large prejudices to the body of a child.

Kiran is so courageous and strong — and I was struck by how she speaks, often through bits of wisdom like, “Go with an honest heart and things will be OK.” Originally, you weren’t going to show her face, for her protection and privacy, but in the end, you did. How did that change come about? 
She’s so compelling, yeah. Just to let you know, that interview that we did with her, where she says what you’ve just quoted, that was actually done after the case was over. Of course, I would chat to her periodically, but I didn’t want to put any kind of pressure on her, so that interview wasn’t done until a few months after the verdict. I wanted to make sure that when I did film her, it was at a moment that was right for her emotionally.

In terms of revealing her, that was a process. The film took eight years to make. She came of age and we thought, let’s see how she feels about it. She watched the film with her parents and she didn’t want to be hidden. She wanted to be celebrated. When I asked her why she chose to come forward in this way, she said it’s because when she watched the film, she couldn’t believe how brave she was. She was so proud of the 13-year-old girl that she loves. And that’s the girl she wants to celebrate. 

You end the film with some statistics: 90% of rapes in India go unreported, but that since the 2018 ruling that found the men guilty and sentenced them to 25 years in prison, the number of survivors coming forward has doubled. It must be quite meaningful to be part of that cultural change.
Definitely. The majority of people who make documentaries, we do it because we want to affect change. That’s our primary purpose. And we want to understand the world. I do, anyway. I just want to understand the world at a level where you can find solutions that are effective — not seeing things as a binary or right or wrong, but really understanding things at the level of human impulse.

With this particular film, there are two things that I really want to do. One is to encourage other survivors of sexual violence to come forward. Around the world, the number of sexual violence survivors that come forward is so dismally low compared to the actual incidences that happen every year. So I feel that the courage and the determination of this child to come forward and stand up for what is right will inspire other survivors to come forward.

I also feel with this film, the thing that it tackles in an indirect way is toxic masculinity. And the only way we’re going to have equality and gender justice and change things is to actually look at masculinity and understand what we’re doing as a society to men and boys. We have to give men and boys a new way of being male, we have to redefine masculinity. And I think we also have to see masculinity as something that’s not just a prison for women, but for all genders.

A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentary issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.

Lily Gladstone Wrap cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap


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