The Strangely Narrow World Before Her

Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her has been widely praised for taking the viewer into two seemingly opposite worlds: those of Miss India contestants and those of Durga Vahini camps. But why does the film fall into the trap of pretending that these are the only two ways of being for Indian women?

When I was ten years old, there was little that could persuade me to wake up before the absolute last minute that I needed to. But twice a year as dawn broke, I would sleepily crawl into my parents’ room, where the television set lived. Because at 5am, on these two precious days, were the live screenings of Miss World and Miss Universe, brought proudly to Indian homes by Star World and an assortment of beauty products. And I was not, for the life of me, going to miss the show.

Inside the world of Miss India contestants. A still from the The World Before Her.Inside the world of Miss India contestants. A still from the The World Before Her.

Miss Uruguay and Miss Panama taught me geography in a way that outshone Carmen Sandiego, and as they moved from evening gowns to bikinis to world peace, I watched in quiet awe. I would take in their little rehearsed introductions filmed against beautiful backdrops, and as I listened to their hopes-dreams-visions, a tiny part of my heart always ached.

In my family, we’re all teachers and academics and wannabe philosophers: we say brain before brawn, and beauty never features. My ancestors left behind a proud tradition of women paving the way for me to be and do all that I could. But in those early morning moments, as my lanky, awkward, straight-A achieving, ten-year-old self peered over the edge of the bed and into the world of beauty queens, I knew, goddammit, I knew that was the world I wanted: mostly because that was the world I could never have.

Inside the Durga Vahini camps. A still from the The World Before Her.Inside the Durga Vahini camps. A still from the The World Before Her.

In 2012, Canadian-American filmmaker Nisha Pahuja screened her third documentary film The World Before Her at international film festivals to the wide acclaim of critics worldwide. In May 2014, after a vigorous Kickstarter campaign, the film arrived in India. The World Before Her contrasts two seemingly-polarized worlds: the contestants of the Miss India World 2011 competition, and a group of women at Durga Vahini, one of several Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindutva training camps for young women held across the country. The film has been hailed as ‘powerful and thought-provoking’, ‘riveting’ and a movie that ‘powerfully illustrates a palpable tension between tradition and modernity’.

In 2012, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky was made into a TV documentary that sought to explore and combat gender-based violence. As viewers, we were shown some nauseating scenes: actress America Ferrera cries as she hugs a young Asian girl, Olivia Wilde asks a sex worker how much she was paid, and Eva Mendes writes the words ‘Girl Power’ on a chalkboard in Sierra Leone. Accompanying the film was an online campaign seeking to turn ‘oppression into empowerment for women worldwide’. Riding the wave of the Kony 2012 philanthropic documentary trend that tries to ‘help’ oppressed people, the film-campaign package is one that is increasingly being exported across the Global South, which, as it turns out, is where the efforts of the campaigns and the subjects of these films are almost always based. East seen by West. Rich describes poor. Or what have you.

A botox session for a beauty contestant. A still from the The World Before Her.A botox session for a beauty contestant. A still from the The World Before Her.

Thankfully, The World Before Her evades some of the more obvious traps of such filmmaking, such as using Western celebrities, or in fact, any non-Indian subjects. The film also makes genuine efforts to accurately represent the not-so-creeping wave of Hindutva ideology that often makes Indian women both its battle standard and its target of war.

The campaign accompanying the film, however, does make some dubious claims of spreading awareness in villages by taking ex-Miss India Pooja Chopra to speak to audiences about female infanticide (bearing little resemblance to meaningful grassroots campaigning that has happened in India). Sadly, it is unlikely that Pooja Chopra will also combine this expedition with warnings to rural India of what happens to women continuously exposed to a cookie-cutter fashion industry – the one she was part of.

Woven together by the shared dreams and desires of women in both Miss India and Durga Vahini, Pahuja’s film explores some of the hoariest dichotomies in the book – old versus new, tradition versus modernity, mother versus whore. Depicting oppressive and calculating cultures obsessed with crafting women into products – be it as wives for Hindu men or perfectly pruned sights for international runways – The World Before Her forges a narrative of what many believe to be the contradictory axes on which Indian women’s lives spin.

Crafted. Moulded. Shaped. Perfected.

Beaten. Botoxed. Hinduized. Modernized.

Mona Chaddha worries. A Still from Moi Marjaani.Mona Chaddha worries. A Still from Moi Marjaani.

Okay, sure. But I can’t shake the ten-year-old in me who would listen to the stories of the pageant queens and desperately want to know more;who instinctively knew that there was more. I can’t shake the thought that somewhere between the two polarized versions of Indian women that foreign lenses create earnestly and Indian critics consume greedily, there is a helluva lot more.

* * *

In The World Before Her we meet 19-year-old Ruhi Jain, who has her eyes set on the Miss India World 2011 crown, and like the other 19 women attending the 30-day boot camp in the run up to the competition, believes that “failure is not an option”. From botox injections to skin-whitening sessions, these mostly small-town girls are trying to make it big in a world that can, at any point in time, “swallow them whole”. We observe model-turned-festival director Marc Robinson covering the contestants’ heads with white sheets that resemble KKK get-up because “all [he] want[s] to see are hot, beautiful legs”. We witness a young girl attempting to resist a botox injection that aims to make her face “more harmonious”, eventually losing her battle with the syringe-wielding woman. We watch as a skin whitening session makes young women hold in the pain of the chemicals applied to their faces, explaining it away under the logic that “In India, we’re obsessed with fairness”. The contest, when seen through the lens of the camera, is as 70-year-old diction expert Sabira Merchant describes it: ‘A little factory. It’s like a manufacturing unit.’

Nobody cares about your face. A still from the The World Before Her.Nobody cares about your face. A still from the The World Before Her.

Several miles away in Aurangabad, another woman-manufacturing unit is springing to life: one of the RSS’ infamous and never-before-seen Durga Vahini camps, grooming women not in makeup and pleasantries, but in the ideologies of Hindutva practice. Here, 24-year-old Prachi Trivedi – who interestingly feels that neither ‘girl’ nor ‘boy’ fully describes her gender – has the role of youth leader, and trains the young women attending in the art of self-defence, cultural values, and a hatred for non-Hindu cultures, religion and people. From chants declaring ‘We will slit your throat if you ask for Kashmir’ to training in using one’s body in combat against a man four times your weight, these young girls are being “tamed”, as one leader says, before they “grow too wild”.

These two vastly different realities are woven together by a bouncing, jangling edit that skips from one story to the other, closing the space between the two through the women themselves. As 2009 Miss India winner Pooja Chopra tells the camera that “you have to keep dreaming”, the lens moves to a shot of a young girl at the Durga Vahini camp named Chinmayee, who says that she will “give it her level best”. And as Chopra recalls how her father had wanted her dead, ashamed of yet another girl child, Trivedi tells the camera that she is grateful that her father let her live, despite her gender. 

The shift from one reality to the other is crudely made, and interspersed with the kind of stock shots a Google image search of ‘women in India’ might throw up: a woman in a brightly coloured sari sweeping a city road, or a piece of graffiti next to railroad tracks depicting a saffron-covered woman in a bold red bindi.

But no matter, the women are still speaking to us.

Or are they?

Who here is really telling the story? Like many documentaries that begin with a strong notion conceived long before shooting begins, rather than the voices of its subjects, The World Before Her is, first and foremost, a film about India. The narrative gives the impression of having been pre-decided (not least thanks to the subtitles and intertitles that gives us sentences like ‘the Hindu right is known as the Indian Taliban’), and the voices of the women are moulded to fit a common dream: their national pride and a desire to be the best possible representatives for India. Jain proudly says to the camera, ‘I’m not just here because I want to look good. I’m here to become Miss India and represent my country abroad.’ Meanwhile at the Durga Vahini camp, the organization’s president Malaben Rawal vehemently declares to the listening girls: ‘Where is the self-respect of Indian women? We don’t know who we are anymore’.

Above their desires, dreams, failures and fears, the women of this film are shown as struggling with what it means to be an Indian woman caught between tradition and modernity, the old and the new; what does it mean to stand for all Indian women; to stand for India?

The women's jamaat of Tamil Nadu. A still from Invoking Justice.The women's jamaat of Tamil Nadu. A still from Invoking Justice.

Remember the scene in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when London-return Tina is making waves in an Indian college with her miniskirts and westernized clothes, and bad-boy hero Shah Rukh Khan’s crew demands that she publicly sing a song as a rite of induction (and presumably also a way of flirting-via-bullying)? And Tina, aka Rani Mukherjee, launches into a pitch-perfect Om Jai Jagadeesh Hare, following which she tells her awestruck hero that ‘Just by growing up and studying in London, I haven’t forgotten my culture, and don’t you forget that’. Oooh-snap-burn, Shah Rukh. This girl’s both modern and traditional, mini-skirt wearing and religious, and don’t you dare suggest otherwise. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was made 16 years ago.

This is not to say that this debate gets old for some people. Throughout the world’s history, women’s virtue or chastity has been seen as a marker of national or cultural worth, and in India, this virtue is often intertwined not only with a national identity, but a Hindu national identity. The polarization of the Indian woman into two extremes is not new. The fact that the battle for a singular national identity – which is itself a mythical, impossible construction – is played out on women’s bodies is not new. But should a film made in 2013 respond to these extremes with strokes as broad as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? Kuch Kuch Hota Hai says that you have to be both (traditional and modern), whereas Pahuja’s film says that Indian women are forced to be one of the two, in a scenario where both options are as oppressive as each other. But the problem is that the conception of Indian womanhood in both films still exists within the same polarity.

The teary-eyed, grit-loving reviews, which have hailed The World Before Her as pioneering, seem to ignore the heaps of work done to challenge this way of framing women’s lives.

Pallavi on divorce. A still from Hum Tum Connected.Pallavi on divorce. A still from Hum Tum Connected.

In a 2004 paper titled ‘New Patriotisms: Beauty and the Bomb’, feminist Kumkum Sangari described how the rise of beauty pageants in India was closely tied to the liberalization of the country’s markets, and paved the road for multinational corporations (MNCs) to establish a now self-perpetuating beauty industry.

More interestingly, Sangari also points out that the initial protests against beauty pageants by the Hindu right, like those depicted in Pahuja’s film, were not, as the film suggests, born from the desire to police morality, but had strong anti-globalization and anti-liberalization agendas. Over the years, as free market capitalism became more deeply entrenched in national economic policies – including those of right wing parties – Hindutva’s protests continued, though now shifted in the direction of their attack to focus exclusively on the tainting of Indian culture and values. Today, in an era when globalization and free market capitalism is rarely questioned, the symbol of the Indian woman is now forced to simultaneously represent two things: the forward-thinking, sexually desirable, internationally marketable commodity, as well as the chaste, religious, covered-up, ‘homely’ Indian wife. The discourse of this duality is everywhere, from advertisements that position the multi-armed Maggi Mum against the long-legged beauty getting into a sleek car, to Bollywood’s ubiquitous narratives where an item girl must see the inside of a mandir before she can count as a heroine. In this way, Sangari writes, “as vectors for the reformulation of patriarchies…the beauty queen and the bomb may well belong to the same fairy tale.”

* * *

When it comes to a good documentary film, often what excites viewers is unrestricted access to never-before-seen spaces and the chance to hear subjects’ voices, unmediated and on their own terms. Amidst all the external gazes and voices attempting to sweep India and its women with a grandiose brush of right vs. wrong and oppressed vs. free, several intriguing films have been made over the last few years right here in India. In September 2012, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust screened Nirnay (Decision), a film by Pushpa Rawat and Anuparna Srinivasan, which followed the lives of young, lower middle class girls in Uttar Pradesh. Or take And You Thought You Knew Me, (also screened by the PSBT) a film by gender rights activist Pramada Menon that foregrounds the lives of five women who live in Delhi and identify as other than heterosexual. Or the 2013 television show Connected Hum Tum, in which five ordinary Mumbai women recorded their rather unsummarizable personal lives themselves on a video camera. Or Deepa Dhanraj’s Invoking Justice, a documentary about the women’s jamaats in Tamil Nadu. Or Anubhuti Kashyap’s superb short film Moi Marjani about a young woman in Patiala and her very particular reasons for avoiding her online lover. From the very mainstream Bollywood the outline-blurring female protagonists of Queen and Shuddh Desi Romance. These are random examples of the growing voices of filmmakers in India, who most crucially root their endeavours in the real lives of women, and the stories they have to tell.

Documentary filmmakers walk a fine line when it comes to mediating voices: the line between steering the wider narrative of a story and writing the story yourself. And when agency is compromised, the line has been crossed.

Take this scene in The World Before Her. Following scenes in the Durga Vahini camps depicting training on self-defence and how to use a gun, Prachi Trivedi is asked a series of rapid-fire questions by an out-of-frame, distinctively foreign, heavily accented voice: “Would you kill for Hindutva?” “Who?” “So you would do that? You would actually help build a bomb?” These leading questions result, for the most part, in simple yes-or-no answers. In this way, the conversation is dominated not by Trivedi, but by the authorial voice that builds an argument of senseless violence. The World Before Her has been hailed by critics and social media enthusiasts alike as ‘non-judgmental’, but in reality, little space is allowed for stories that do not fit into the larger picture of extremism The World Before Her seeks to paint. While the Miss India contestants are at least done the courtesy of being given more open-ended questions (for example, the director asks Ruhi Jain “What are the thoughts that play in your mind?”), when it comes to the Durga Vahini camp, the filmmaker’s desire to portray oppression outstrips any agency the women are granted. There is little doubt that Hindutva beliefs and practices are moulding women into the shapes that best support their movement. In perhaps a very similar manner to the ways in which a globalized beauty industry is ‘manufacturing’ pageant queens. But are the young women in the Durga Vahini camps entirely subsumed by Hindutva ideology? What do these camps give them? We will never know because the film makes it seem that the girls at the camp have no pasts, no friends (apart from Chinmayee who is asked if she has any Muslim friends, which as it unsurprisingly turns out, she does not), no families (with the exception of Trivedi, whose father is asked several leading questions about beating his daughter), and no outside lives.

There’s a wonderful scene just before ‘graduation day’ of the Durga Vahini camp – where the girls march through crowded city streets shouting slogans – that shows them dressing up for the occasion. They glance at themselves in slightly cracked mirrors and scrub their faces clean, carefully plaiting their hair into braids and tying brilliant orange ribbons on the end. The moment is quickly eclipsed, though, by the forced comparison made between their orange sashes and those of the Miss India contestants, and the girls are shown repeatedly saying, ‘Just like Miss India’. And like Ruhi Jain’s parents crying in front of their small television set as their daughter loses the competition, or one of the closing shots of the film in which Trivedi is shown washing dishes in her house, this scene, too, seems staged.

White saviour documentary. Eva Mendes in Sierra Leone.White saviour documentary. Eva Mendes in Sierra Leone.

For every Trivedi-father figure that beats his daughter, where are the loving families for whose daughters the Durga Vahini camp is just one more neighbourhood activity? For every beauty queen who has learnt to ‘believe in her dream’, where are the stories of the countless relatives, partners and fiancés of women in the beauty industry who have been known to disapprove of their careers and restrict their lives? For every botox-resisting woman in the Miss India pageant with friends, hopes and dreams, where are the parallel nuances in the Durga Vahini women’s lives? Even a quick online search of the women who are part of Durga Vahini Facebook groups shows them to be – as most people on Facebook are – multifaceted individuals with their own stories, social circles, selfies, and college pictures. With unlimited and unprecedented access to these spaces, the filmmaker has wasted ample opportunities to complicate the dichotomies into which women are all too often divided.

Ultimately The World Before Her replicates the same dualities it seeks to complicate. It is unable to give its subjects agency with which to represent themselves; to speak in their own voices. It loses these opportunities by insisting on showing women from both camps as primarily struggling to be representative of – or coming to grips with – “what it means to be a woman in India today.”

For most women, to what extent they reflect, shape or mirror an identity for the rest of their countrywomen is a secondary or tertiary factor – if it is a factor at all – in the ways in which they negotiate their daily lives. The idea that a woman ‘stands’ for anything is one that is externally imposed, rather than part of her lived experience. It is the nuances of her relationships, ideas, profession, hopes, disappointments and so on that make up who she is, not whether or not she is a genuine representative of and for her country. Even when it comes to women with power, success or fame – who are often seen as representative of other Indian women – the realities of their lives far outweigh any gaze that sees them in the context of their nation.

The World Before Her does have some moments where these lived realities are exposed and raw, and it is in these moments that the film has its greatest successes. For example, Trivedi’s character is inherently complicated by the fact that she wants for herself a life different to the one the RSS advocates for women – namely, a life of independence without marriage. Or the fact that her gender ambiguity means that her friends often mock her, yet she finds an accepting home in the Durga Vahini camp. But these moments are few and far between. The rest, on the other hand, is so carefully chosen, moulded and crafted, it means that we as viewers peer into the silences more than we do into the words. These erasures attempt to uncomplicate very complicated lives. But no matter how hard you try, you cannot manufacture uniformity. And the magic, as 1984 showed us, is in the resistance: however small, however failed.

Richa Kaul Padte is a writer, researcher and bass-music lover. She tweets @hirishitalkies and writes at richakaulpadte.com

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