In a remote camp in rural India, hundreds of girls and young women gather to learn the beliefs and practices of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of radical Hindu organization Vishva Hindu Parishad. Combat skills and karate are combined with ultra-traditionalist views of women’s role in society at camps that the Indian government has characterized as terrorist training bases.
Meanwhile in bustling, urban Bombay, 20 young women gather to train for the Miss India World pageant. Miss India hopefuls are paraded through a never-ending sequence of dental procedures, beauty treatments, Botox, exercise routines and diction lessons. For these young women, winning the pageant presents opportunities of which they can only dream otherwise.
Ideologically opposite and deeply disturbing in their own ways, the fundamentalist camp and pageant training complex provide the setting for director Nisha Pahuja’s heartbreaking documentary The World Before Her. These very different places serve as a sort of moral battleground for modern Indian. The clash between these two worlds is nowhere more apparent than in the thoughts and concerns of the young women featured.
Whether sashaying down a runway or learning how to use a double-edged dagger, these young women are caught in social forces larger and more powerful than themselves. Pahuja focuses her inquiry of two young women who very different ideas of their role in contemporary Indian society. As she talks with the young women, a rich portrait of their struggles (and similarities) emerges.
Prachi, a 23-year-old woman who has spent the last 20 years attending Durga Vahini training camps, struggles with the incompatibility between her dreams for the future and the belief system for which she fights. Ruhi, a 19-year-old woman from Jaipur, balances her desire to make her parents proud against the day-to-day stresses of competing in a beauty pageant. Both young women express worry about what the future of India holds, both for them individually and for women as a group.
For many viewers, the portrait that Pahuja paints of India may come as a surprise. The film isn’t brimming with the bright Bollywood dances and idyllic yoga scenes so often favored in Western representations of the country, but offers a much darker view of reality. Here we see how the minds of young women are manipulated and shaped, either by religious leaders or savvy entrepreneurs.
The documentary’s raw material is enough to make it fascinating, but what really stands out is the compassion and lack of judgment with which Pahuja approaches her subjects. Because Prachi and Ruhi are allowed to speak for themselves, the portrait that emerges of the young women has an unmistakable authenticity. The women speak at length about what they want for their lives and what they think of the moral direction of their country.
Interviews with girls at the camp and at the pageant, their families, and key players in Durga Vahini and the beauty industry are interspersed with ethnographic scenes of everyday life in both locations. Some of the Durga Vahini scenes are prefaced by archival news footage and information about attacks perpetrated by radical Hindus against Christians, Muslims and others that they consider impure.
The archival footage allows the viewer to ground the information given by the young women against the historical reality of the radical organizations. Harrowing shots of angry Hindu men dragging women from bars, chasing them and beating them adds a particularly melancholy layer to Prachi’s story. As we watch the movie, we can’t help but wonder if she realizes the very real contradictions between her desire to be a single woman with a career and the teachings of Durga Vahini.
In order to understand the cultural forces at play at the pageant and in the camp, Pahuja places the viewer in the girls’ subject position while they are lectured by their mentors. At the camp, this means seeing Prachi’s father tell young women that non-violence is useless and that Gandhi was terribly misguided. At the pageant, we hear the misogynistic program director criticize the contestants’ bodies without reserve.
While the women competing in the pageant are immeasurably more free to conduct their lives than the girls at the camp, we see that this freedom isn’t without limits or expectations. Yes, the Miss India World contestants can wear what they’d like in public, but only because they’ve met the pageant director’s strict physical standards. For these women, subjecting themselves to painful cosmetic procedures is simply the price they pay for opportunity and freedom.
As we watch these scenes, we begin to feel some of the very real pressure that the young women of modern India bear every day. Yet we’re never invited to cross the line from sympathy to empathy; as Prachi and Ruhi talk about the choices they must make as they grow older, we realize how unique their world really is. It’s not only a dim picture that we see, either. We also begin to see the possibilities for change in India.
Fortunately, these possibilities are located neither in the Durga Vahini camp nor in the Miss India World pageant. Instead, they are located in the hearts and minds of the young women who we meet in the film. We don’t need to agree with the violent, anti-Gandhi sentiments of Prachi to understand the type of country for which she is fighting. Similarly, we don’t have to like the skin bleaching and humiliating physical inspection Ruhi undergoes to understand the India for which she is fighting.
The special features included on the DVD release of The World Before Her give us extra insight into the pageant and the Durga Vahini camp. Interviews with key players in both locations further elucidate the views of the leaders of these substantially different organizations. They also help us to better understand the way in which modern Indians frame the struggles of their country and their hopes for the future.
Ultimately, The World Before Her is more than just a portrait of the struggles of young women in modern India. It is also a crucial examination of the mechanics of systems of social control. As viewers, we are forced to decide what we think is less degrading to women: adopting a role of inferiority to men or becoming objects of desire for public consumption. Who offends us more: the woman who says that girls should be married by age 18 so that their wills can still be broken or the man who says that a 31-inch waist is simply too large for a pageant?
It’s not a very good choice that we’re left with, and that’s what makes Pahuja’s film so important. As we consider the mechanisms of terrorist camps and beauty contests, we’re forced to imagine alternatives whose consequences are not so harsh for young women. It is in these alternatives, whose shadows we see play across the faces of Prachi and Ruhi while they are deeply in thought, that compel us to care about The World Before Her and applaud its importance.