Still from 'To Kill a Tiger'

‘To Kill a Tiger’ Highlights a Father’s Radical Love for His Daughter

The Oscar-nominated documentary by Nisha Pahuja tells the story of one family's fight for gender-based justice in a patriarchal society

Still from 'To Kill a Tiger'

Courtesy photo

Words by Priya Patel

There are very few documentaries that have moved me to tears or produced a visceral reaction. To Kill a Tiger was one of them. The documentary, released initially in 2022 but broadly more recently, chronicles the harrowing, courageous fight for justice of a family from Jharkhand (located in eastern India) after their 13-year-old daughter, Kiran, was sexually assaulted. With empathy and rigor, filmmaker Nisha Pahuja exposes the stifling status quo as the family navigates the complex legal system to prosecute the perpetrators. When the devastated girl’s father, Ranjit, appeals to authorities after her assault, they suggest she wed one of the perpetrators instead of taking action. Instead, Ranjit goes on a quest to pursue legal justice, armed with the support of a gender rights non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Srijan Foundation.

Fundamentally, the documentary, announced today as an Oscar nominee for best documentary, involves all of the elements of a moving piece of work focused on human rights, pursuit of justice, and highlighting how common practices of shaming and silencing victims needs to be retired. Pahuja and her team intelligently demonstrate that the fight against gender-based violence is not an easy one, especially when poverty and archaic Indian mentalities are part of the problem.

“India is an amazing teacher,” explains Pahuja during a recent press screening. “India teaches you patience and humility and how there is really no such thing as ‘black’ and ‘white.’ Gender justice is something that has been important to me for many years, but while making this documentary, I let some of my anger go to better understand the people in this world and how their realities shape perception.”

Main character Kiran’s (which in Hindi means “ray of light”) resilience is evident throughout the film; she’s a girl with pigtails who is interested in makeup, nail polish, and trying to find her place in the world after surviving a traumatic incident. But digging deeper, the documentary is a synopsis of the deep love that a father has for his daughter.

Father-daughter bonds in India are profoundly complicated by long-standing patriarchal norms. Many Indian men maintain emotional distance from their daughters, whom they see as temporary family members soon to be married off. They consider girls economic burdens and liabilities, thanks to the notion of dowry, adhering to archaic attitudes that boys alone carry on the family lineage. Social conditioning absolves fathers from actively nurturing their daughters or even safeguarding their basic interests. Instead of perpetuating this idea or deserting his daughter, Ranjit fights for her.

Actor Dev Patel in dark clothing, sits holding a microphone and director Nisha Pahuja sits looking at him, a screen of a film poster in the background.

Dev Patel (left) is an executive producer on director Nisha Pahuja's documentary "To Kill a Tiger."

India Bharadwaj

Executive producer Dev Patel, also at the press screening, agrees that what makes Ranjit a compelling protagonist and central figure is because he is not a man who makes headlines for participating in honor killings and violence against female members of his own household. Unfortunately, these types of violence are still widely prevalent in India, though there is increasingly more discussion about why it’s wrong, resulting in (slow) legislative action.

“I made a career playing underdogs, and Ranjit is the most unwavering underdog there is,” Patel explains. “It’s a revolutionary act to be a villager in rural India and break free of the ecosystem of the village’s mentality. Kiran is Ranjit’s North Star, and he’s just fighting for her in spite of the circumstances that are stacked against him.”

The documentary by no means glorifies Ranjit or showcases him as a hero. In fact, they intentionally drew out his weaknesses, and we see glimpses of him missing court dates, getting drunk, ignoring phone calls, and airing his frustrations. Filmmakers reveal that it took months for the family to earn their trust, but after they built a rapport, they wanted to accurately portray the humanity of each of the characters.

“We’re all frail and we have our vulnerabilities and we need to honor that. It would be easy to excise the film out of all the gritty stuff and make it a simplistic narrative, but we made a deliberate choice to keep it honest,” Pahuja says.

Three South Asian people sit on a stage with the film poster for "To Kill a Tiger" in the background.

Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja (center) speaks during a panel following a screening of her documentary "To Kill a Tiger."

India Bharadwaj

Instead, Ranjit indirectly and directly demonstrates a shift in the relationship between a father and daughter that is urgently needed in India. Raised by a single mother himself, his father rejected the family when he was young, and this experience likely shaped his perception of family and identity. In his own life, his support of Kiran and the journey (which Pahuja explains spanned many years) prove that girls are not the “burden” that they have historically been.

“Ranjit always said he wanted a daughter,” Patel adds. “In India, you have the notion of a caste system and dowry which gives a monetary value to a daughter. I remember reading a line in this novel where a father was treating his sons better than his daughters and he said, ‘Why would I water someone else’s garden?’”

Ranjit is the opposite. The title of the film pays homage to the formidable strength and courage he demonstrates. The "tiger" metaphorically represents the intimidation and hazards facing his family. Yet Ranjit refuses to submit to fear or social pressure.

A girl with orange flowers in her hair, sits on a dirt ground, facing away, with the title "To Kill a Tiger."

The poster for "To Kill a Tiger."

“We do a lot of close-ups on Ranjit’s face because we saw the silent drama playing out on his face and his resilience became a guide for us,” Pahuja adds.

At the end of the day, Ranjit is an extraordinary father expanding the paradigm for paternal duty.

To Kill a Tiger has earned a total of nine awards, including at Toronto International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, Salem Film Fest and three Canadian Screen awards, and is currently nominated for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Published on January 23, 2024

Words by Priya Patel

Priya Patel is a writer covering film, entertainment and culture.