“People are forgetting history,” says Prachi Trivedi. “We are becoming modern, our country is becoming modern. Our past is our roots, we cannot leave our roots.” Under her voiceover, you see Prachi in action, her gaze intent and her lathi in hand, practicing her martial arts moves on an urban rooftop. The scene cuts to Ruhi Singh, first on a city sidewalk and then in her room, pale green teddy bear on the bed beside her. “A lot of people think that if you allow women to work, and get modern and get educated, you lose your culture and your heritage and your deep-rooted values,” she says. “But I don’t agree. If we want India to develop, I think all of us have to change. We have to change our mentality.”
This first sequence of The World Before Her sets out a seeming opposition. But even as Prachi and Ruhi describe their dissimilar notions of Mother India, the film insinuates their similarities too. In both scenes, the young woman’s motion is slightly slowed and the camera is slightly low; as they contend with oppressions past and present, both “want freedom,” as Ruhi phrases it, the freedom to choose their future.
Released to select theaters through Cinedigm’s Docurama program (that is, seven films in seven weeks), The World Before Her goes on to sustain the refreshing complexity laid out in these early moments. As the film cuts between Prachi teaching martial arts at a Durga Vahini camp for girls and Ruhi competing at the 2011 Miss India Pageant in Mumbai, and both girls at home with their parents, it reveals not only how they hope to exercise their “freedoms,” but also how they might have come to their beliefs and self-identities.
The World Before Her considers other sorts of contexts, in part through scenes that show Ruhi and Prachi at home. Both girls are encouraged to pursue particular ideals by their parents. Ruhi’s mother — first visible through the narrow doorway to her kitchen — laments the oppressions still facing women in Jaipur: “Most of them are poor, they are not allowed outside the house,” she says, “A woman, a girl, should have some freedom,” she says. Prachi’s father sees his daughter’s lot otherwise: “I don’t know what she wants or doesn’t want and it’s not important,” he says, as she sits just off-screen to his right. “Marriage is her duty. She has to get married and she will.” The camera pans to show Prachi, who says, “We will see about that.”
In scenes with and without her father, Prachi insists that she’s not meant to be married. “I’m the only child of my father,” she explains in a solo interview, “So he grew me up like a boy and a girl both.” She sees in herself strength and commitment, able to smile and show the scar on her foot her father describes (it’s a mark, he says, “that is meant to be a lesson for her,” one he delivered when she lied to him when she was in seventh grade). Alternately obedient and defiant (and sometimes both at once), Prachi insists that Durga Vahini is a means to preserve the “values” of Indian women. At the same time, Sabira Merchant, a diction expert at the Miss India contest describes the great opportunities for the girls, to “have exposure” around the world. The lessons in diction, pageant walking, and makeup, she says, are a “manufacturing unit, where you go inside and you’re polished like a diamond, to the best that you can be polished too. That’s it, “she sums up, “the modern Indian woman.”
But still and again, the difference between modern and traditional is ever shifting. And by setting each story alongside the other, the film insists on the ways that zealous commitments — to whatever cause, to whatever era — can lead to blindness, willful or not. When the pageant director decides he wants the girls to parade with sacks over their heads, so hey might be judged only for their “beautiful hot legs,” the scene turns bizarre and not a little barbaric. The girls parade, their eyes peeing through cutout holes, and the director smiles. “We want to chase our dreams,” says one contestant, Ankita Shorey. “‘Is it worth it?’ Yes, sometimes the thought comes into my head.”
The film never loses sight of the ways that any of the girls’ “dreams” is shaped by their experiences. When Prachi dismisses Gandhi’s nonviolence as ineffective and declares her devotion to Durga Vahini, the film follows with a short series of images showing atrocities committed by Hindu extremists (the 1999 murder of Christian missionary Graham Staines, the 2008 Melagon bombings, and the 2002 Gujarat riots). The camp where Prachi works includes training with weapons. “I don’t like those girlish type girls, speaking all nonsense. Even if she’s not physically strong, she should be mentally mature,” Prachi asserts. “Some girls here, I wish like slapping them and banning them out of this camp. But this is not my camp, so I don’t have the authority.” And so she does what she can, training girls to fight what hey can. She works with little girls, a wide shot showing them as they aim at targets, their tiny frames swaying with their rifles’ weight. “We’re not terrorists,” explains Prachi, because “we can’t teach them to make bombs.”
At home, Prachi watches the Miss India pageant on TV with her parents, the flickering screen reflected in her glasses. Her mother observes, “It’s a new culture, they’re not going to follow our old ways, each generation chooses its own path.” When Prachi is asked to explain how she can be “fighting for a belief system that actually is controlling you,” her answer is as roundabout as it has to be. “I know that,” she says, “I completely know that. Whatever I’m thinking, whatever I want to do, whatever decision I’m trying to make, whatever I’m thinking for my life. It is against the system for which I’m working.” Convoluted and confused, her assessment sums up precisely the problems she and too many other girls are facing.