Thursday, May 30, 2024

A Conversation with Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj – Renowned Men’s Rights Activist and Documentary Filmmaker (Full Interview)

Interviewed by – Robin Bhuyan (Editor in Chief), Priyal Dholakia

Written and edited by – Priyal Dholakia – (Assistant Editor)

She has been called a “firebrand journalist,” a “fierce advocate,” and a “voice for the voiceless.” Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj has made it her life’s work to shed light on the often-ignored issue of men’s rights in India. Through her powerful documentaries and unwavering activism, Deepika has become a prominent figure in the fight for actual gender equality. In this interview, we will get to know the woman behind the headlines and hear her insights on the challenges men in India are facing today.

If you wish to read a shorter and abridged version of the interview, please click here.

EH: First of all, we would like to thank you for giving us your valuable time. We already know what motivated you to stand up for the rights of men who face false accusations from women. However, we would like to know what exactly inspired you to choose documentary filmmaking as a way to expose this important issue.

DNB: Everything that has happened in my life so far with regards to my fight for men’s rights has been very organic. I had not planned or envisioned that I would be doing something like this in my life. It all happened in a very natural and spontaneous way. There was a personal incident that occurred with me back in 2011, after which my life completely changed. I had to see my own family go through the trauma of facing false dowry accusations. At that time, I was working as a special correspondent with a media organization in Delhi. My cousin-brother got married in the same year. Sadly, his marriage split apart within 3–4 months owing to the extramarital affair of his ex-wife. Even though the separation was amicable at first, immediately after two months, the girl’s family sent a legal notice to him, falsely accusing him of demanding dowry. They even accused my cousin’s family of domestic violence. The charges were all completely unfounded, white lies with not a single ounce of truth in them. My cousin’s family went through immense trauma, including suicide attempts, due to these fake allegations.

So, that is when I started studying in depth about Section 498A of the IPC. I came to know that it is a serious problem plaguing our society and strongly felt the need to raise awareness about the cause. I realized that the only way I could do it was by making a documentary film around it, since it was one of the things I specialized in while pursuing my journalism course. Plus, there were hardly any other films made to address this issue. I was sure that a well-documented film that chronicles the real-life experiences of people suffering from this could possibly have a huge impact. It could empower people to come up, share their stories, and stand up for their rights. So, I eventually took a break from my full-time work and chose to create a documentary as a way to spread awareness on the subject.

EH: Can you shed some light on your journey into documentary filmmaking during your journalism studies, and how did it help you?

DNB: So, back in my college days, I had opted for documentary films as my specialization during my journalism course. I would like to extend a special courtesy to my professor here, who was from the US and was a documentary filmmaker himself. He had traveled across the world, especially to conflicted areas. He often used to show us his documentaries. So, that is when I got exposed to the idea of how documentary films are different from fiction films and how they tell stories of real people and their problems. I realized that documentaries are a powerful tool to actually bring out the voice of the people and the issues they are facing. There is no other format of storytelling that makes people actually dive deep into the lives of other people and connect with them so closely. There are various documentaries across the world that have led organizations to address specific social concerns. As a result, that concept inspired me, and I even produced two documentary films as a part of my course. One was named “Gramin Dak Sevak,” which was centered around the livelihood challenges of the rural postal employees. I had attended their protest once and realized that they were dealing with a lot of genuine problems. So, I made an 8–10-minute short documentary around it. The film did pretty well for them too, and they used it to showcase their issues to their rural representatives. Another one I made was “Youth Count.” It was about why the youth of India are not very inclined or are negligent towards voting. The film featured the likes of Narayana Murthy and some politicians who raised awareness about the topic. NDTV also broadcast it during the 2009 elections in India. Both of these films made a pretty good impact and helped address genuine concerns. So, this is how I started my journey into documentary filmmaking during college.

EH: Initially, feminism was started to provide rights to women who were denied basic rights. But today, we can see that feminism is taking a completely different turn. Do you think that there is a bigger conspiracy to destroy the traditional family system?

DNB: Well, I do not think I have the necessary claims to comment on this. I always tend to rely on strong evidence to be convinced or make a point about something. I am not too sure if it is some sort of planned conspiracy or not. But yes, it is very evident and visible that the capitalists, of course, see the joint family unit as a barrier to progress. They link joint families with impediments like consumerism and other things. We are seeing that nowadays, people are breaking free from the nuclear family system as well. And as you said, the idea of feminism has taken a completely different turn these days. We can correlate it with the example of the tobacco company, whose growth was limited in the 1970s and 1980s. Then some marketing genius in the organization suggested selling the idea of smoking as empowerment for women. And there were many women who fell for that messaging too. So, now I think there is this whole idea of telling women that if you are working in your home, then you are a slave. But if you are working as a slave for your employer, then you are empowered. There is absolutely no problem with women working. Women should work, and women need to work. But if a woman chooses to be a homemaker or stay at home, it does not discredit her empowerment or account for slavery in any way. Also, many feminists argue that only women have to compromise their pursuits to fulfill their families’ happiness, which is not true. There are also so many men out there who have to compromise their ambitions and dreams for the sake of their families. So, to say that only a woman’s dreams are compromised is a very wrong notion. This is such a false idea of empowerment that is being spread in society these days. It is slowly and steadily catching on in India too, especially in the metropolitan cities. So, yes, I would say that there are definitely a lot of forces out there that are brainwashing women into leaving their inherent femininity. As a result, we are slowly seeing women distance themselves from their uniqueness and originality. Many women shy away from embracing their core feelings or emotions and repress their true selves. As women, we have to understand that the more we chase becoming men, the more we distance ourselves from becoming women.

EH: Do you think that today many young people in India, especially men, are refusing to get married? If yes, do you think modern feminism has a role to play in this?

DNB: I think the only reason men are completely refusing to get into marital relationships is essentially because of the laws in India. Even in the West, men have started preferring live-in relationships over marriages. That is simply because live-in relationships do not entail as many responsibilities as the traditional system of marriage imposes. Also, the laws are not amended enough to support men who have to bear the burden of broken marriages. The same thing is happening in India too. The laws are burdening men with every kind of responsibility. No matter if it is the man who is on the receiving end, it is the woman who is always favored. So, we see that a lot of men are giving up on marriage because of this. Also, I see that it is leading to a lot of distrust and friction between men and women in society. The inherent trust men and women have in each other is taking quite a hit. Owing to this, men and women have started competing against one another instead of complementing their energies. If we compete, we will never be able to co-create. It is as simple as that, and we need to understand that. So, yes, a large section of men in society are scared of such false accusations coming their way from women. It has repercussions at various social levels, too. Another important repercussion of this is the immense psychological impact it has on children. We see that many kids, particularly in the West, have to deal with a lot of mental health challenges, and that too at an early age, due to the failed marriages of their parents. And right now, the worst thing in India is that nobody is looking at this. Nobody is even talking about this on a larger scale. There are several children out there who are being separated from one parent and made to live with the other parent. A child has to go through so much alienation and brainwashing, which ultimately drains them of their mental and emotional capacities. It is indeed unfortunate to see all of this.

EH: As we already know, the Indian legal system has been very biased towards women. Do you think that there is any chance that this will change and we will achieve true gender equality?

DNB: Of course, it will change. You know, the laws are ultimately the outcome of society’s shift. Even though men’s rights are at the bottom of the spectrum right now, a shift is definitely taking place, albeit slowly and steadily.

EH: Some people criticize the men’s rights movement as being anti-feminist or misogynistic and promoting toxic masculinity. What is your stance on this issue, and how do you think it can be addressed?

DNB: What we observe these days is that if we disagree with any of the feminists’ arguments, they frequently take a hostile stance toward us. I have faced this problem many times myself in the last 10–11 years during my movement to promote men’s rights. But since my conviction in my cause is so strong, I have not let these things bog me down. So, yes, I have often found this tendency among many feminists that they cannot hear counter-views or arguments. They cannot hear anything that goes against their ideology or way of thinking. I think this is not very productive. It basically limits our ideas to being very rigid and unhealthy. Then, such people cannot look at the other human being as a human being or respect the other person’s experiences or thought processes. They simply tend to vilify the other person and label him or her as “wrong,” just because that person’s thinking does not align with theirs, which is not done. One should refrain from imposing their thought processes on others. You know, the rigidity of such ideologies can have serious ramifications for society as a whole. If we take an example, many feminist platforms propagate the idea that a woman taking care of her parents after marriage should be encouraged and normalized, which is great. On the other side, we also see many women confidently saying on matrimonial platforms that they will not stay with their in-laws. Why do such feminist platforms maintain silence over it, then? Just as a girl wants to take care of her parents, she should not have any issues with a man taking care of his parents too. Even though a lot of feminists claim that they stand for equality, when gender neutrality comes into play, they deny it, saying that men will misuse it. Such hypocrisy should not be encouraged. It can bombard an entire generation with a vested ideology. As a result of it, many young girls from the newer generation are getting brainwashed into blindly imbibing such thinking in their lives.

EH: The rise in fake rape and dowry harassment cases is also harming women. Because of the rise in such cases, even if a woman is actually victimized, the public is going to be less likely to believe her. What do you think women can do about this?

DNB: Absolutely. I have always believed that false accusations are not only detrimental for men and their families; they are equally detrimental to women too. If such false accusations against men keep rising, society will eventually stop believing women who are actually suffering. Also, we have to realize that nowadays, courts and police stations are choked with such false accusation cases. And thankfully, I am seeing a substantial rise in awareness about false accusations and the victimization of men in society. I also see many women commission authorities and police officers coming up and going on record to say that it is unfortunate to see men being victimized this way. So, yes, it is unfair to paint every case the same color. We have to rationalize and treat each case with its due authenticity. At the end of the day, we have to ensure that no human being has to face any kind of unfairness or injustice in any way. Regardless of whether a woman or a man commits the wrong, it is still wrong. This is also what I am trying to promote through my work. And this is the reason why a lot of women are also supporting my cause.

EH: What advice would you give to young people, especially men, before getting into a committed relationship?

DNB: I think the first and most important thing is to find out whether the other person is actually being truthful to you or not. One should be transparent with the other person and not hide anything. A bond that is built on lies will eventually break. So, it is essential to make basic inquiries and have open communication before getting into any kind of committed relationship or marriage. Many people are enamored with purely aesthetic or materialistic considerations. But these things are not the basis of any happy relationship. It is necessary to accept the other person as he or she is in their true selves. Also, the two people should align their core beliefs and values. I think it is extremely important. One should look at the lifestyle, personality traits, and thought processes of his or her prospective partner before making the final decision. Even the smallest of issues should be discussed beforehand to ensure that neither party has to face any conflict later on.

EH: Do you feel that your movie, Martyrs of Marriage, got the kind of attention it deserved? Do you think your purpose of highlighting the male victims of modern marriage was achieved?

DNB: Well, I did not have any predefined checklists on what the film should be doing. I had not anticipated its results or the audience’s response beforehand. My only idea and purpose behind making the film was to raise awareness, reach out, and support those who are victims of false accusations. On that parameter, I think the movie has helped thousands and millions of people. On Netflix and YouTube, the movie has received positive reviews from people all over the world. People have expressed their positive feedback to me through various means regarding how the movie has helped them. The documentary is now also being shown in some of the media institutes as part of the curriculum. The film was also showcased in judicial academies and courts. So, the target audience has largely been sensitized to the theme of the film. The movie has not won too many awards, but it has definitely won the hearts of many people. As a filmmaker, I feel very happy about it, considering it is my feature-length documentary film.

EH: You had produced another documentary, India’s Sons. Do you think it made a significant impact to highlight the issue of false rape cases?

DNB: After covering the topic of false dowry cases in my first film, Martyrs of Marriage, my natural inclination was to look at false rape cases for my next film. In 2012, the Nirbhaya case happened, and there was a huge public outrage around it. And after that, the laws were overhauled within a month. Just like dowry laws, I am also seeing the rising mockery and misuse of rape laws happening today. On a daily basis, I am seeing cases wherein a woman is falsely accusing a man of raping her on completely unverifiable grounds. Such fake allegations are really obnoxious. It is like making a mockery of one of the gravest crimes to occur. Even during the #MeToo movement, we saw that there were attempts to tarnish the entire image of a man on the basis of some anonymous allegations. There were attempts to snatch his job, disrupt his entire well-being, and implicate his family. So, I am really concerned about men who are falsely accused and who are feeling helpless to get out of the trap. It is a human rights violation of the highest kind. But, at the same time, I am also equally concerned about women who are genuine victims. It is extremely detrimental for women, too, who have faced sexual assault on a regular basis. To promote a healthy society, both sides of the dynamic should be considered. So, yeah, essentially, that is how the idea of making India’s Sons came about. I really wanted to make this documentary film to address this issue. It brings out the life stories of men who are falsely accused of rape. These are really shocking stories that compel us to think about how the system can be so blind even in the presence of crystal-clear evidence. It is holding men accountable and landing them in punishments for a crime that they have not even committed. Men who are being falsely accused go to extremes and even go through severe trauma and think of committing suicide due to it. Such things are really heartbreaking and sad to see. So, I genuinely hope that this film creates some sort of impact in that space. India’s Sons did not get a release on any of the OTT platforms. Because I think, despite the rising number of cases happening around us, people are still hesitant to talk openly about these things. Nonetheless, I continue to work on these issues and bring eye-opening stories to the fore. I am sure there will be greater awareness in the years to come.

EH: There are many movies that are made to highlight women’s issues. However, when it comes to men’s issues, we hardly see such films. Even if such films are made, they don’t gain much popularity. What do you think is the reason behind this?

DNB: I think the larger concern of everyone is naturally and rightly more towards protecting women. This is because women are more vulnerable and suffer from social issues and safety concerns on a daily basis. They are susceptible to encountering crimes and abuses on a more frequent basis than men. So, the natural instinct of the public at large is more inclined towards highlighting what women go through and their struggles. As a result, we see that many films are being made around that. Since the assaults committed against men are relatively fewer in number, themes centered around men’s victimization often do not take center stage. Moreover, there is still a large section of society that is reluctant to accept that men may get victimized or abused too. So, these are some of the probable reasons why such films are hardly being made.

EH: Would you like to give any parting messages to our readers?

DNB: I would request your readers to please watch Martyrs of Marriage and India’s Sons. They will understand the entire interview much better by looking at these documentaries. Martyrs of Marriage is available on YouTube, and India’s Sons is available on the website

EH: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and candid responses with us! We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. We really hope all your endeavors find success.

DNB: Thank you so much!

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