June 6, 2014
Durga Vahini is a militant women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which, according to the VHP’s official website, is “committed to protection of Rashtra-Dharma and Sanskriti through bringing about a renaissance in the Hindu society with Service, Security and Sanskars as its motto” (sic). This is a world usually kept hidden away from the public gaze. When you watch Nisha Pahuja’s documentary, you will see why. The camera has a way of coaxing its subjects to lift their veils and bare their disguises. Here it reveals truths that pretend liberals in the Sangh Parivar would no doubt like to keep hidden for as long as possible, quietly exposing to the world the full-blown communalism and misogyny of this organisation which trains young Hindu women to guard their culture and the country’s borders from demonic (not my choice of words) Muslims and Christians, from Western influences and from any form of feminism, through any and all means including physical violence.
Having got permission to shoot a Durga Vahini camp (we are told this is the first time such permission has ever been granted), Pahuja does something very interesting. Instead of giving us a straightforward narration of events there, she runs the story of these budding Durgas alongside a training camp for the Miss India contest, interspersed with interactions with the families of both sets of girls. Lazy, unthinking assumptions are often made equating “desi” with “conservative”, assuming that all that’s Western is liberal. With minimal commentary, The World Before Her shows us how, despite their differing goals, both camps in their own way seek to brainwash these young women and/or pressure them to conform. The result is a chilling, insightful documentary.
You might think the most exciting part of the film would come from the Durga Vahini footage. This, after all, is unexplored territory. Curiously though, the documentary equally points to the fact that discussions in the media about beauty contests have so far only touched the deceptive tip of this potentially damaging iceberg. It’s truly unnerving to watch cosmetologist Dr Jamuna Pai virtually forcing reluctant girls (very very young girls) to take Botox injections, and discussing their faces dispassionately in their presence as though those faces don’t belong to human beings; or to see fashion choreographer Marc Robinson dehumanising the girls on the catwalk in a disturbing scene I won’t describe because I’d like you to discover it in the film.
However, let’s not claim an absolute equivalence here for the sake of being politically correct or in the hope of being deemed unbiased. No doubt both seek to brainwash women – Durga Vahini into accepting a worldview that’s more convenient to men than women, Miss India into accepting a worldview that’s more convenient to corporates than individual humans. Durga Vahini asks a woman to subjugate herself and her dreams before the altar of motherhood, Hindu culture etc; Miss India seeks to make participants personality-less clones of each other who could be convenient clothes horses and cosmetics models. The father of one of the Durga Vahini girls repeatedly refers to her as a “product”; Miss India’s diction coach Sabira Merchant describes the training sessions as being a “factory” where diamonds are polished. There though the similarity ends. Durga Vahini steers its participants into hatred for the other (in one of the film’s tragi-comic moments, a speaker equates the Muslim community with the rakshasi Shurpanakha and Christians with Putana), it trains them in combat and instills in them a willingness to even kill for the cause, whatever it might be. They’re led to believe that India and Hinduism are in immediate and grave danger, and that arms are the solution. “Doodh maango kheer denge, Kashmir maango cheer denge (Ask for milk and we’ll give you rice pudding, ask for Kashmir and we’ll tear you apart),” is one of their violent slogans. The enemy is not just those who threaten India’s borders though. The enemy is everywhere, including within the woman. Miss India, on the other hand, deepens the participants’ insecurities and is likely to engender some degree of self-loathng among its weaker participants, but it definitely does not seek to inflict physical harm on those who choose not to be a part of it.
Some may feel that Pahuja has played it safe by not taking sides. The other way of looking at it is that in staying seemingly (though not entirely) equidistant, she has left us totally free to take whichever side we wish to, completely unhampered by the baggage of her leanings. I for one felt revulsion towards everything going on in the Durga Vahini camps, starting with the senior woman lecturing participants on how all girls should be married by 18 because it becomes tougher to tame women at a later age. Yes, she said that! I kid you not. Towards Miss India though I have mixed reactions. Yes it seeks to rob women of their individuality, but while the weak succumb, the strong won’t. Besides, it also ends up economically empowering so many young women with a range of career options that would not have been open to them without it.
This film’s victory is in its clever juxtaposition of two vastly different scenarios against each other, and the discussions this prompts us to have in our own heads. It’s failing is in the choice of one of its two protagonists. Durga Vahini’s story is told primarily through the experiences of a colourful girl called Prachi who is quite the character. She thinks. She is spirited. Oddly enough, she even realises that through Durga Vahini she is establishing a social structure that tramples upon her own dreams for herself as a woman. It can’t be helped, she says. The focus of the Miss India story though is a bland creature called Ruhi who is limited in her thoughts. The World Before Her might have been far more enriching if the central character in that portion had instead been that other contestant we get to hear a few times: Ankita Shorey, the one with the mind, the one who is intelligently introspective on camera and unafraid to make acute observations about the downside of the training. She seems not to have been brainwashed after all. There is hope.
What a shocking, sad, sporadically optimistic, weirdly entertaining, illuminating film.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
A (Why, dear Censor Board, why?)
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