How Nisha Pahuja's 'To Kill A Tiger' shatters the silence around rape

With many celebs as executive producers, the film is a top Oscar contender

88-Stills-from-the-film Courage under fire: Stills from the film.

To Kill A Tiger, one of the five documentaries competing for an Oscar on March 10, opens to the early morning hum of a village in Jharkhand. After meandering a bit, it takes us to a farmer’s house where a young girl in a school uniform is combing her hair. We watch as she deftly weaves an orange ribbon into the ends of her two plaits. But instead of tying a simple, neat bow with two loops, she folds the ribbon over and over again to create a burst of orange festivity on either plait, like two big, messy marigold flowers. Or smiling dahlias, perhaps. This is 13-year-old Kiran, Ranjit’s eldest daughter and an inconvenience in her village.

To Kill A Tiger is being backed by some eminent Hollywood celebrities and is a top contender for an Oscar.

One of the basic etiquettes expected of rape victims in India is that they remain anonymous and invisible. That is mandated by law, and also our culture.

Depending on how ardently rape victims adhere to this rule, we either celebrate and venerate them with lofty epithets like Nirbhaya (fearless), or interrogate survivors, their statements, their past, their behaviour and clothes.

Indo-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s powerful documentary, To Kill A Tiger, snatches that comforting buffer of anonymity and brings us face-to-face with Kiran (a pseudonym that means ‘ray’ in Hindi) as she laughs, cries and recounts how, at a family wedding near her house on April 9, 2017, three men grabbed her by the hair, dragged her to an isolated spot and raped her.

A traumatic, triggering, but also heartwarming tale of a girl’s courage and a father’s gentle determination to seek justice for her, To Kill A Tiger intimately follows Kiran, her family and members of the NGO supporting them in their court battle until the three men were found guilty and sentenced to 25 years of rigorous imprisonment in 2018.

Celebrated at several international film festivals and released in theatres in the US last year, To Kill A Tiger is being backed by some eminent Hollywood celebrities. Director Deepa Mehta, actors Dev Patel, Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, among others, have come onboard as executive producers to give the film’s Oscar campaign some glamour and heft.

Chopra-Jonas called it a “hard-hitting piece of art” and the film is a top contender to take home the Oscar on Sunday.

In India, however, where rape continues to be linked to shame―for the victim, the family and the nation―To Kill A Tiger has neither been released, nor is it talked about. The little chatter about it on social media is critical of the film’s “western gaze” that “exotifies” the Indian victim. Last week, Netflix acquired the film’s rights and is scheduled to release it in Hindi, with English subtitles, on March 8. There has not been much publicity around it.


Part of this unease and silence comes from Indian law that prohibits anyone― media, police, lawyers, courts, even family members―from revealing the identity of rape victims, especially minors. A necessary safeguard for the lives, livelihood and reputation of the over 30,000 women who are raped every year in India, this restriction can be waived by the survivor at 18 years or above. To Kill A Tiger declares at the onset that Pahuja took Kiran’s consent before filming her. But the film was shot when Kiran was a minor. Pahuja also states in the film that she waited till Kiran turned 18 to take her consent, and only then did she release the film.

That does not matter because a larger part of our discomfort comes from our upbringing, our culture of silence, of the hush that surrounds sexual abuse and assault in our homes and families. Used to maintaining a distance from rape victims and incidents, we prefer to identify them by the places where they were committed―Kathua, Unnao, Shakti Mills, Suryanelli or Park Street.

Kiran’s perpetrators, too, tried to impose silence with threats. If she told anyone, they said, they would kill her.

But when she collapsed on her way home, and her father asked her what happened, she told him what Kapil, Langdu and Ishwar Munda had done to her.

Ranjit lodged a complaint and in court, the judge received a sealed envelope that contained documents about the internal injuries Kiran had suffered.

This almost paternal promise of anonymity and protection to rape survivors from prejudice, further victimisation and harassment does not extend much beyond court premises. In Kiran’s village, the elders, the women and the mukhiya (village chief) would often speak of “compromise”, and insist that she marry one of the perpetrators instead of ruining three lives.

We watch Kiran sob when she hears of the threats and intimidation her father faces, and when her little brother says, “If papa dies, I will also die”. We watch her go to school though no one speaks or plays with her, and say softly, quite casually, “I was born to do the right thing”.

In a country where rape survivors are invisiblised for their own good, so that the focus stays on the crime and not on them, To Kill A Tiger is discomforting and disruptive, because it draws our attention to Kiran, to what happened to her on the night of April 9, 2017, and thereafter, when she refused to be shamed or silenced.

The film humanises and honours her by letting her tell her story. It lets us watch Kiran as she walks into the court in a blue sleeveless kurta, wearing a bindi and lipstick. Her father later says that though she was crying, she continued to tell the judge what had happened that night. To Kill A Tiger is a film about Kiran, a rape survivor. It’s also a film that shatters the silence imposed on rape survivors to celebrate a tenacious young girl who is palpably anxious as she leaves the court, but when asked what she is looking forward to doing next, says, “Going home and eating mangoes.”