Documentary ‘To Kill a Tiger’ Sparks Ethical Debates Amid Indian Premiere


‘To Kill a Tiger,’ a documentary directed by Nisha Pahuja, initially graced screens in Canada in 2022 and subsequently made its debut in India on Netflix, coinciding with the Oscars ceremony where it had been nominated. This synchronous release on a Sunday is causing a stir, given that it should have hit screens earlier, fanning the flames of suspicion regarding the timing of its arrival on the Over-The-Top (OTT) service.

Caught in the crosshairs of Indian law, ‘To Kill a Tiger’ treads on sensitive ground beyond legal infractions, crossing into ethical territories. It aims to shed light on the plight of a family, including a child sexual violence survivor, as they navigate the complex and often inadequate criminal justice system. However, its execution has been called into question for being overly simple and lacking depth.

In the world of criminal justice, the response to sexual violence is less than adequate, and this truth is mirrored in the film. Yet, it’s the context that’s problematic: a marginalized tribal family in rural India struggles to obtain justice. It’s this very struggle, set against a rural backdrop rich with exoticism, that uncomfortably hints at possible exploitation through storytelling choices.

The film’s intent remains unclear. It presents the family, focusing on Kiran (a pseudonym used to protect the survivor’s identity, though her face is revealed), as they pursue justice. While the film suggests the family’s quest is central, the reality is a concerning blurring of lines. Kiran’s brave decision to share her story, in hopes of empowering other survivors, gets lost amidst a narrative that reduces her to little more than a vehicle for her own story, potentially stripping her of agency.

Although some moments in the documentary resonate deeply, the film has been criticized for failing to truly honor Kiran’s experience. An adult revisiting their childhood trauma for a global audience versus consenting to the recording and sharing of that childhood trauma are two vastly different things. One has to ponder whether Kiran fully comprehended the exposure and scrutiny that would follow such a personal revelation.

At times, the authenticity of the harrowing and disruptive situations depicted seems crafted, as if performing for the camera, possibly employing props to enhance cinematic appeal. This raises doubts about the authenticity of the nonprofit organization’s interventions portrayed in the film and whether they have been amplified for dramatic effect. The film, unfortunately, stands as a guide on how not to address sexual violence.

The presence of cameras infiltrating the private spaces of the village, the courtroom hallways, and the family’s home begs the question of its impact on Kiran, her family, and the wider community.

In an initial disclaimer, ‘To Kill a Tiger’ states that “great care” was taken to provide a “safe environment for the children during the filming.” A deeper explanation of the precautions taken is lacking, leaving viewers questioning the transparency and ethicality of the film’s production. Was the consent process thorough, and were potential implications fully understood by those involved?

Another area for reflection is the potential continuous exposure to public scrutiny now that the documentary is available on Netflix. Will Kiran and her family be ready to face further invasions of privacy or judgment from an audience that is now privy to their intimate struggles?

Furthermore, despite a closing note mentioning consultations with Indian women’s rights activists prior to the release, their names are conspicuously absent. The film also fails to mention any dialogue with child rights groups, which might be seen as a significant oversight or a deliberate exclusion.

Concerns over the treatment of sensitive subject matter grow as platforms like Netflix present ‘To Kill a Tiger’ to a wider audience. It challenges us to confront the ethical boundaries of storytelling, particularly those involving the dignity and privacy of individuals with traumatic histories.

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