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“Unflinchingly Brave and Pro-Justice”: Nisha Pahuja Discusses ‘To Kill a Tiger’

By Nilosree Biswas

Film still from 'To Kill a Tiger.'

Film still from To Kill a Tiger. Courtesy of Shelter PR.

Directed and produced by Toronto-based filmmaker Nisha Pahuja along with producers David Oppenheim, Anita Lee, Cornelia Principe, Andy Cohen, and executive produced by a group including Mindy Kaling, Dev Patel, and Rupi Kaur, To Kill a Tiger enumerates an electrifying true story of a father–daughter duo from the Indian state of Jharkhand, and their battle to seek justice in the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault. The story also brings forth complex ideas of masculinity in India, entrenched village life, and more. Lauded for its universal yet subtle storytelling, the film recently had a successful theatrical release at New York’s Film Forum.

To Kill a Tiger was nominated for best original music score for composer Jonathan Goldsmith and best writing for Pahuja at IDA’s 2023 Documentary Awards on December 12. Ahead of the ceremony, Documentary met up with Pahuja virtually to discuss her journey, her brave protagonists Kiran and Ranjit, and why this is just not a film only about India but a universal story. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Content advisory: sensitive discussions about rape and sexual violence.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you find Kiran’s story? What made you decide on a documentary about her, her father, and their ensuing fight for justice? 

NISHA PAHUJA: I was making a documentary that looked at masculinity in India, following the work of a not-for-profit in Jharkhand, which ran a three-and-a-half-year gender sensitization program with boys and men across the state. My idea was to document this work and the changes that took place post this intervention. Over a course of time, this happened to Ranjit and his daughter and I began to track their story. Initially the idea was to have three storylines, with Ranjit and their court case at the center, but during the edit we realized that we simply needed to focus on this one and make the film about Kiran and Ranjit, and their family.

D: How long did it take to film?

NP: One and half years of research, three and a half years of shooting, followed by three years of editing. It was an eight year project. You actually don’t think about the time after a point. Last night I told Kiran, “You, your family, and your father have been with me every single day.”

D: What was the family’s initial response when they learned that a documentary is being made about them?

NP: I recall it took three or four months before the family felt at ease in front of the camera. I met Ranjit in the context of an unfolding story. Usually in a documentary when you meet your subjects, you have time with them to let them get used to the camera, but in this case I started filming right away. 

The intimacy that grew with the family is really special for me.

Kiran’s resilience and courage were extraordinary. She never vacillated, never changed her mind about pursuing justice, and to be that determined at 13 is unbelievable! 

D: How did you decide who to work with in this very special and sensitive project?

NP: Everyone I worked with on this film has been my long-term collaborator including Mrinal [Desai, DoP]. Apart from filming exquisitely, Mrinal also has a great deal of compassion for the people we were filming with. I also worked with two editors on this project. Dave Kazala was my first editor. I have known him for long and worked with him for nearly twenty years. Dave is familiar with the cultural nuances of India as he has cut more films related to India. He is truly a compassionate human being, totally nonjudgmental, someone who does not see the world in black and white. So, my sensibilities and his match a lot. Mike Munn, my other editor, is brilliant. He has an amazing ability to edit from the heart. The two of them make a brilliant combination. At the edit, they resonated with my emotions. We all felt we should really do justice to the family.

D: Did your gendered understanding make any difference to your storytelling?

NP: All of us were on a journey with this film: me, Anita [Kushwaha, location sound recordist], Mrinal. That is the power of documentary—it’s transformative and a deep space of interconnected relationship that’s unfolding in real time. The gendered understanding did impact the way I look at my craft and see my role in this documentary.

D: There are multiple exec and co-producers for the film. Is this a strategization for better outreach?

NP: As for the producing credits, the National Film Board of Canada, David Oppenheim, Cornelia Principe, and Anita Lee are the people who have been part of the core team. Andy Cohen has been a longtime supporter of my work and is also my EP. Once the impact work started, we began raising more funding in order to grow the project. It was then a necessity to involve more people.   

On its surface it may feel like a film from India but it is actually a film about what it feels to be a human. There is not a woman who at some point has not experienced the fear that her body and gender may be violated. That’s why it touches something deep inside.

At the moment, the impact campaign is evolving. We are working with Equality Now, a global women’s rights organization. They see the film as something that can be used to initiate change, especially around law, which is their focus. We are also going to engage with a lot of culture-change work both in the United States and in India. Moreover, we want to encourage Kiran, who has been unflinchingly brave and pro-justice to emerge as a role model, along with Ranjit as a man and a father standing up for his daughter, something that doesn’t happen in India at all!

D: Will you screen the documentary in India? 

NP: Definitely we will but in due time. We will get people to support the impact campaign, but meanwhile, the undefeatable father-daughter pair are supposed to be in the US. They had been to screenings in the UK which turned out amazing. They spoke and did the Q&A themselves. I did not speak at all, and that’s how it should be. 

Nilosree is a documentary filmmaker and author based between Philadelphia and Mumbai.