On the face of it, Ruhi Singh’s and Prachi Trivedi’s worlds bear no resemblance. While Ruhi vies for the coveted Miss India title, Prachi is an instructor at a Durga Vahini camp, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The juxtaposition of their worlds would only mean chaos. But in Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her, it is an examination of a woman’s identity in contemporary India. After four years in production, the documentary will now release across six Indian cities on 25 April.
The initial idea was to understand the role of women in a changing India through the prism of beauty pageants. As Pahuja delved into the reasons for which they had invited the ire of fundamentalists and feminists, she realised that at the heart of it was a question of “Indian identity” and how it played itself out on a woman’s body. Although she made a swift entry into the dressing rooms of the 2011 Miss India contestants, her way into a Durga Vahini camp at Aurangabad in Maharashtra was laid with roadblocks. After two years of persistence, Pahuja’s team was the first film crew to be allowed to shoot inside such a camp. “We got 10 days inside the camp to shoot our documentary and I was aware that I needed to tread carefully,” says Pahuja.
In the film, Pahuja’s lens pans back and forth between what are essentially two boot camps. At the Miss India camp, botox flows freely. Skin whitening treatments, counselling sessions with plastic surgeons and vigorous workouts are a routine. “It is a little factory, where young girls are polished like diamonds to become the modern Indian woman,” says pageant diction coach Sabira Merchant in the film. Twenty women, vying for the crown, trot the ramp with capes covering their faces, so that contest organisers could judge their bare limbs “without being distracted”. Unnerved and claustrophobic, they still walk with confidence. Winning is all that matters.
The Durga Vahini camp, too, is a factory of sorts, where young girls are taught that Hinduism is the best religion in the world and that city girls are forgetting their culture and getting westernised. Here, they are trained to use guns. These young women are prepared to fight the “takeover” of their traditional values by Christians and Muslims. It is a dark moment in the film when a 13-yearold proudly announces that she has no Muslim friends. Prachi even admits that she is prepared to kill, if need be. “Here were two Indias being manufactured and it was an interesting premise to look at women’s rights in that context,” says Pahuja. “At the end of the day, it was a question of Indian identity, and how women were shaping it and being shaped by it.”
Originally, Pahuja also interviewed feminists who oppose beauty pageants for being derogatory to women, but that part was left out in the final cut. “It was not as if they didn’t have important things to say but their’s was a third viewpoint and it became very chaotic. I did not want to make an essay,” explains the 46-year-old director. “I wanted to allow characters to develop and explore the ideas of tradition, modernity, freedom and power through their inner worlds.”
Although both Ruhi and Prachi find themselves in opposing spaces, Pahuja manages to weave in an intimate narrative through conversations with them, their families and other contestants of the pageant.
Into her twenty-fourth year, Prachi speaks zealously about her views on Hinduism and laments the “degradation of Hindu culture due to modernisation”. She had started attending such camps when she was just three. Twentyone years later, her faith in her convictions is unflinching. She shows a scar on her foot that had been caused by her father when he hit her with a hot iron rod. But, she defends her father for his beatings. “I am grateful to him. Being a girl child, he let me live,” she says.
Ruhi, on the other hand, lays bare her insecurities for the camera as she talks about the need for “modernisation” and how winning the pageant is a way of making her middle- class parents proud back in their hometown, Jaipur. For her and the other contestants, the beauty pageant is a symbol of freedom, a way of asserting their identity. But, are these women really free?. “Beauty pageants don’t really empower women, but in a society where we have always tried to control women’s bodies for centuries, it sends out a message,” says Pahuja.
In that sense, Pahuja feels that the women at Durga Vahini camps are gaining more power. Yet they are told that they have to get married, have children and do not need to work. When Prachi expresses her reluctance to get married, she admits that she is fighting for a system that will give her fewer, rather than more opportunities to live the life she wants. It then becomes clear, that although their worlds are poles apart, these two women strive for the same thing: freedom. Both are confronted with the same question: how am I going to survive with the cards that life has dealt me?
Watching how women were being dehumanised and judged for something that they had no control over and seeing young girls being brainwashed saddened me, but how could I judge something I have never experienced?” asks the director. Pahuja grew up in a society where it was relatively easy for her to assert her rights as a woman, but she too had to fight her father’s conservative mindset. The film, she says, has helped her gain more compassion for him. “Patriarchy assigns gender roles to each one in the society. It is hard to give up power.”
The film has won several awards and accolades at international film festivals. And although it has been touted as a classic “nationalist versus westernised” point of view, Pahuja feels that it is not such a straight equation where the Durga Vahini camps equal nationalism and beauty pageants equal modernisation. “We need to turn the equation on its head and ask what ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ mean to us,” she says.