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An Uncritical Eye - "The World Before Her"

While taking questions at the end of the screening of her 90- minute documentary, “The World Before Her”, in New Delhi, director Nisha Pahuja confessed that she was feeling a bit like Leni Riefenstahl, the infamous director of that mother of all propaganda films on the Nazis-- Triumph of the Will. The reason she said was that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was planning to screen her film minus the sections on the beauty contests, as part of their motivational programmes in camps. She told the audience that she was surprised that the VHP had taken this decision. Pahuja’s film may not be as grandiose as the paen to the Nazis made with goose-stepping precision, but with her uncritical eye and sympathy she evinces for all the characters she films in the Durga Vahini, she shouldn’t have really been surprised.

The film says it is the first to shoot the training at a Durga Vahini camp and for that alone it is a valuable resource to see first hand how young girls are being brain washed into hating Muslims and thinking that wielding a few sticks and learning some artful body moves will give them an identity and make them defend themselves and their country. That was the real value for the film for me, even though one has read a lot about these camps and what is taught in them. It was chilling to see young women from rural areas look to the Durga Vahini as an inspiration and towards the end of the film, a group leader says she would want to repeat this training as she quite liked the ideas sown in her head and by going for more camps, they would harden over time. Pahuja during question time again brushed off this girl’s statement, saying she was all over Facebook wearing mini skirts so she wasn’t sure whether she was a hardcore fan of the training camp as she was saying.

The director confessed to knowing the Trivedi family for two years before she filmed them and there is a rapport you can sense when she speaks to Prachi, who is a trainer in the Durga Vahini and who speaks openly about her willingness to kill for her beliefs and her culture -- read Hindutva. But Pahuja also shows us another side to Prachi- how her father burnt her once, to teach her a lesson not to lie. Hemant Trivedi, who is often shirtless in the house, complains of scantily clad women in beauty contests- that’s how Pahuja ties the two main themes in her documentary. That of the aspirations of young girls to become beauty queens and that of the other half, young women like Prachi and Chinmayee who are from small villages and for whom the Durga Vahini offers identity and conviction.

Prachi forgives her father, Hemant who also does his bit as a preacher for the VHP, for burning her foot. She says he let me live, so it was kind of okay for him to do whatever he did. Prachi’s generosity can only be understood in the light of the fact that she is a single child and she was painfully made aware of this fact that she was allowed to live, unlike new born girls in Maharashtra and elsewhere in the country who are killed mercilessly by their parents.

In Maharashtra there is another heinous practice of calling girls “Nakoshi” or unwanted. In fact the government had to come up with a programme to rename girls called Nakoshi with proper names. Yes, by those standards Prachi must be grateful to her father and continue to hold up his beliefs rather unquestioningly. So the trainees at the camp take out a procession with a gun and dressed in bright orange or red some of them, with sashes, if I am not mistaken, much like the aspirants at Miss India beauty contestants- that seems to be their identity, propped up by a vicious ideology which they accept in toto.

When the young girls from the Durga Vahini are juxtaposed against the more urbane wannabe fashion models the scene shifts from accepting an ideology and allowing yourself to be its flagbearer, to another world which is equally vicious in its treatment of women. But unlike the Durga Vahini students, one of the girls who is subjected to Botox, a rather harsh fairness cream routine and other indignities wonders if it is all worth it. Here the ideology is high fashion, and that ultimate Miss India crown which Ruhi, one of the aspirants is so keen on, it is affecting her physically. Yet when she doesn’t win it, you get a feeling, she will move on. But the story that is Pahuja’s centre piece is that of Miss India Pooja Chopra whose mother Neera was asked to kill her as a child since she was the second girl. Pooja’s mother left her father and it was a momentous day when her daughter who was unwanted, won the Miss India crown.

These are moving stories, there are many more in India, where its not only gender but caste and religion which determine your existence and the opportunities you have. Prachi dressed in jeans and T shirt doesn’t want to discuss marriage but eventually she will have to bow to her father’s wishes. Durga Vahini women are also subject to mentors who tell them not to aspire to be anything else but to being women as they are the weaker sex in any case. I can somehow visualise the backlash from the training camps would be to wear mini skirts and make a dash for these beauty pageants but that will be another story.

I found the entire narrative lacked a context and so it was very easy for the audience to take to Prachi and her hateful beliefs because she is presented in a sympathetic light and at no point is Pahuja, who says she has liberal beliefs, attempting to question the Durga Vahini or the kind of poison it is spreading. Little wonder the VHP took to it and now want to use it to promote these camps. At least in the beauty contests, the director has a more critical approach without actually being judgemental. She shows young women who are asked to wear a white sheet over their heads to hide their bodies so that only their legs are visible- this is for some expert to judge who had the best legs- mystifying for the layperson but am sure these beauty experts know what they are doing! So that the girls can see- small holes are torn out around their eyes and they parade in these bed sheets for this appraiser of legs, looking like awkward members of the Ku Klux Klan. One of them says in exasperation that she is claustrophobic and whether all this is really worthwhile.

Yet, beauty pageant contestants more or less know what they are getting into, their long chins or wrinkles can be fixed with Botox, fairness creams can scorch their tans, their abs and bodies can be toned to death- Sabira Merchant can teach them perfect diction and they can give “sexy not bitchy” poses as one photographer tells them to. When Ruhi Singh didn’t win the contest, she is only momentarily disillusioned. But in the case of the Durga Vahini, even if Pahuja notices her characters wearing mini skirts on Facebook, can the ideology they are being taught vanish so easily? That’s what you are left wondering with at the end of the film and that remains unexplored.

It’s a telling commentary on this documentary that the media group which is a proponent of beauty pageants, blacklisted any news on the film and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad chose to make it more popular! A clear case of unintended consequences of uncritical actions perhaps!

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 7:33:23 AM |

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