Her film on Delhi’s 2012 rape case shook the world. She’s now working to undo gender violence at the roots

The award-winning filmmaker of 'India's Daughter', Leslee Udwin is laying the roots for gender equality and empathy through a school curriculum for little children in 19 countries.

Leslee Udwin barely pauses for breath as she narrates how she spent 31 hours looking into the eyes of rapists in Indian jails for her documentary India’s Daughter, based on the Delhi 2012 gangrape case, which made global headlines. “They had no remorse, no regret. They were programmed like robots by society. One of them told me it was his duty to teach her a lesson because she was out at night,” says Leslee, her voice ringing with horror and barely suppressed outrage.

She adds: “I assumed I’d meet monsters in that jail. But they were completely ordinary men.” Men, she says, who had no sense of empathy or humanity in them due to social conditioning. Men who exist in abundance everywhere in the world, not just in India.

Leslee’s film not only sparked a global movement to end violence against women, it also changed Leslee’s own life and cast her into a new role. In 2015, the day after the award-winning British filmmaker completed the film’s press launch – it had released simultaneously in seven countries – she quit the world of filmmaking, took a flight to New York, met officers at the UN Human Rights’ office, and gathered together a range of experts from around the world to develop a system to educate the youngest citizens of our planet in gender equality, critical thinking and humane values.

Leslee Udwin (Photo: Claus Boesen)

Having understood from neuroscientists that the brain’s neural pathways for empathy, love and human connection are already set in place by the age of six in humans, she decided to strike at the problem of gender and racial inequality at the very foundation.

The result was Think Equal, a nonprofit that has developed an early-childhood education programme to teach social and emotional learning to three-to-six-year-olds worldwide.

“We co-create – through habit, repetition and experientially – pro-social neural pathways in the children’s developing brains, and once they are there, they are there for life,” says the 64-year-old, who was voted by the New York Times to be the second most impactful woman of 2015 after Hillary Clinton, and who won the prestigious Anna Lindh Human Rights Prize the same year.

Think Equal classroom in India

So far, Think Equal has impacted the lives of almost two lakh children in 19 countries including India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and have just launched a campaign to fund 68,000 anganwadis (rural childcare centres) in Rajasthan, India, reaching 2.5 million children every year.

“We – as a society – are culpable for the acts of men who do such brutal crimes. We haven’t taught them how to love, we haven’t taught them values of compassion and social equality. We focus on literacy in schools and leave value education to parents, but the parents haven’t been taught those values themselves,” says the BAFTA-Award winning director. “Why is it compulsory to study numerals and not how to value another human being?”

Born in Israel to Jewish parents – her father’s family had fled to South Africa from Lithuania after Nazi persecution in eastern Europe in the late 19th century, and her mother’s family roots went back to Yorkshire in UK and Germany – Leslee was nine years old when her father decided to take the family back to South Africa, which was under apartheid at the time. “I specialise in repressive regimes,” she grins.

Leslee Udwin and Meryl Streep at the New York release of India’s Daughter

She spent the next 11 and most formative years of her life between Johannesburg and Cape Town, completing her schooling and university degree in drama, and seeing and absorbing the reality about apartheid, apathy and discrimination while exercising her “empathy muscles” and developing her own strong ideas on equality and justice.

Aspiring to be an actor and to work in multi-ethnic environments and not just ‘white-only’ theatres, Leslee moved to the UK to try her fortune in theatre and television, and spent the next few years in what she confesses was the “selfish and self-obsessed part of my life”. She appeared in productions by prestigious theatre groups like the Royal Shakespeare Company, and began compiling the newspaper clippings of her performance reviews in a brown paper portfolio. “It was very sweet and rather pathetic in a way,” she laughs.

So determined was Leslee to focus on her career that she resolved never to marry and have kids. Soon, however, real life began interfering with her career goals. “It took the shape of an evil, criminal landlord,” Leslee narrates like a consummate storyteller, referencing the time she took up activism in 1981 to stand up for justice against a local real-estate baron and his “heavies” who were using illegal means to kick Leslee and all other tenants of her building out.

Leslee Udwin with Pope Francis at the Vatican, December 2019

“Every man in the building fled. Only the single women stayed on and fought. The men feared they would get hurt but we single women had very few alternatives. I went around with kitchen knives for six months,” she says.

Leslee studied property law and found a way to get the local authorities to confiscate the property from the landlord. She even made a TV film about the case, and played herself in it. “That was the turning point for me – to realise there is an activist in me,” she says of the new direction in her career from acting to producing.

The first film she co-produced for television was the hard-hitting documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990) which led to an indignant defence by then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher the day after it was broadcast, and ultimately to the release of six Irishmen who had been wrongly imprisoned for 17 years on false terrorism charges.

Leslee’s production company Assassin Films would go on to make the award-winning films East is East (1999), West is West (2010), and, of course, India’s Daughter (2015), among others. “The years I spent making India’s Daughter were the most enlightening years of my life,” she says in retrospect.

Bewildered by her glimpse into the minds of rapists and murderers, she understood the essence of Gandhi’s words: If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.

“I promise you, the rapists I sat with in Tihar Jail did not have any empathetic neural pathways in their brains; the pathways had long been pared away in their early childhood,” she says. “Nobody was practising empathy with them. These men could have never done what they did to Nirbhaya if they had been exposed to empathy in their early childhood,” she asserts vehemently.

Leslee has involved governments, policymakers, educationists and school networks to adopt Think Equal’s programme as a new subject from the age of three – which, Think Equal’s website says, is the optimal window to modify attitudes, values and behaviours based on scientific evidence. “The aim is to end the discriminatory mindset and the cycle of violence across our world and ensure positive outcomes for our children,” it says.

Think Equal books

At the first session of eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women, where Leslee was a speaker along with award-winning actor-director Nandita Das, Leslee held up different books that are used in the Think Equal curriculum, including those that enable children to look beyond gender and skin colour and to consider all human beings as worthy of respect regardless of surface differences.

Quoting HG Wells, she said, “Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe. And I feel very strongly that we are hurtling towards catastrophe. Now is the time for action.”

South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe, and is supported by WISCOMPSee all the sessions here.

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