Review: ‘To Kill a Tiger,’ a documentary about a family seeking justice for an underage rape

December 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kiran (alias) in “To Kill a Tiger” (Photo courtesy of Notice Pictures Inc. and National Film Board of Canada)

“To Kill a Tiger”

Directed by Nisha Pahuja

Hindi, Nagpuri and Khortha with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India, from 2016 to 2018, the documentary film “To Kill a Tiger” features an all-Indian group of representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a legal system where it’s difficult for people to get convicted of rape, a farmer leads the fight to get justice for his daughter, who was gang raped when she was 13 years old.

Culture Audience: “To Kill a Tiger” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a real-life story about family loyalty and about persistence in a legal case, against the odds of winning.

Ranjit, NGO activist Amit Singh and Jaganti in “To Kill a Tiger” (Photo courtesy of Notice Pictures Inc. and National Film Board of Canada)

Even though “To Kill a Tiger” shows the devastating aftermath of a heinous crime, the more important takeaway from the film is that it’s an inspiring story of perseverance and love from a family seeking justice. Because this documentary is about a case of an underage girl being gang raped, the subject matter in “To Kill a Tiger” will be difficult for some viewers to watch. However, it’s a meaningful chronicle of what it takes to go up against a justice system where rape victims are often shamed and blamed, while rapists are rarely convicted in a court of law.

Directed by Nisha Pahuja, “To Kill a Tiger” (which takes place mostly in Jharkhand, India) had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie was mostly filmed from 2016 to 2018. The rape survivor, who has the alias Kiran in the movie, was 18 at the time the documentary was filmed, but she was 13 when the rape happened. “To Kill a Tiger” shows the long process of her case making its way through the legal system in India. (The trial lasted 14 months.)

Although Kiran’s face is shown in “To Kill a Tiger,” and she gives interviews for the documentary, “To Kill a Tiger” includes this caption at the beginning of the film: “Out of respect for her and her family’s privacy, we ask that any identifying images of her not be shared outside the viewing of this film.” The last name of Kiran and her family members is also not revealed in the movie. Her personality is polite, quiet and reserved.

In “To Kill a Tiger,” the parent who does most of the talking is Kiran’s father Ranjit, a farmer who fought tirelessly to get justice. He says when his wife Jaganti was pregnant with Kiran, he was sure that the baby would be a girl, while Jaganti thought the baby would be a boy. Ranjit describes Kiran as a “daddy’s girl.”

Ranjit comments in the documentary, “She was our first child, so I’ve spoiled her … The amount of love have her, I wasn’t able to give to any other child. I think she received all my love, and there’s nothing left for anyone else.”

The rape of Kiran happened on the night of the wedding of Ranjit’s nephew. Kiran stayed out past midnight. Three young men were taken to custody as suspects for the rape: Kapil Munda, Langra Munda and Iswar Munda. They all pleaded not guilty.

In the documentary, Ranjit says that the rape was so violent, it caused internal injuries for Kiran. He also expresses guilt over the circumstances of the rape, even though it wasn’t his fault: “As her father, I deeply regret that I didn’t protect her. I feel I wasn’t vigilant enough, and so this [rape] happened.”

Ranjit continues, “All the other days when she’d go out, I’d tell her how long she could play for and what time to be home. But on that day, I didn’t tell her, and that’s my mistake. That’s what I regret the most.”

Jharkhand is in the Bero district. Ranjit says in “To Kill a Tiger” that after the rape was reported to authorities, the district chief suggested that Kiran marry one of the accused rapists. Other people in the village pressured Ranjit to compromise so the accused rapists wouldn’t have to spend any time in jail while waiting for this serious legal issue to be resolved.

Ranjit has supportive allies, who make a positive difference in getting legal help and counseling for Kiran and her family. These allies include women’s rights activist Mahendra Kumar, public prosecutor Ashok Kumar “A.J.” Rai, Srijan Foundation lawyer Jopha Laka and legal advisor Lakhan Lala Shah.

Kumar says that in his line of work, he all too often sees the backlash against women and girls who come forward to report being sexually assaulted. He says that more men need to be included in the conversations and actions that advocate for women’s rights. Kumar comments that people often mistakenly think men are automatically excluded from feminism or fighting for women’s rights.

Public prosecutor Rai says that his job as a prosecutor is to fight for underage victims under India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act, but laments that he is overwhelmed with all the rape cases he has to handle. At the time that Rai was interviewed for this documentary, he said he had 400 to 500 cases in his current workload.

The three men accused of raping Ranjit are not interviewed in “To Kill a Tiger,” but the documentary includes an interview with their defense attorney Juhi Chaudhry, who blames Kiran for being out past midnight when Kiran was 13 years old. She says of her clients who were arrested for raping Kiran: “If I thought they were guilty, I wouldn’t have taken the case.”

One of the more unsettling scenes in “To Kill a Tiger” is when the documentary shows a group of male villagers talking about the case. One of them, who is only identified by his first name Muthalik, says about sexual assault allegations: “A boy will only be naughty if a girl encourages it.” It’s a stark example of the inherent misogyny of people who are quick to blame female rape victims instead of blaming the rapists.

Of course, in India’s legal system and other legal systems, people are innocent until proven guilty. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom for the trial of Kiran’s accused rapists, but “To Kill a Tiger” adeptly chronicles the trial through the news media and through the perspectives of Ranjit and other family members who talked about it on camera.

As for how Kiran is recovering from her ordeal, the trial comes to an end (the outcome won’t be revealed in this review), but interviews with her indicate that emotional scars remain. She worries about how being a rape survivor will affect her chances of finding love. “I keep thinking, ‘Will I fall in love or not?’ I think about that a lot. And if I do, how do I tell him what happened to me?”

“To Kill a Tiger” is an impactful documentary about how ordinary people can survive trauma and the experience of an extraordinary legal battle. Although Ranjit is no doubt a hero, and he gets most of the documentary’s screen time, Kiran has a special type of bravery that is the fuel to her father’s fire. Kiran’s story is heartbreaking, but more importantly, it is inspiring.

Notice Pictures released “To Kill a Tiger” in New York City on October 26, 2023, in Los Angeles on October 26, 2023, and in San Francisco on November 4, 2023.

UPDATE: Netflix will premiere “To Kill a Tiger” on March 10, 2024.

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