14-year-old Chinmayee, a Durga Vahini camper, with rifle and sash at the camp graduation. Still from documentary "The World Before Her," source: Gat.ca media.

 

A review of The World Before Her, now showing in the Tribeca Film Festival.

by Natasha Raheja

 The opening sequence of director Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her cuts sharply between salwar kameez and swimsuits, Marathi and English, Bombay and Aurangabad, stilettos and chappals, open hair and plaits, bhangra beats and nationalistic hymns, saffron and skin. At first glance, these images serve to contrast tradition and modernity. As the film proceeds, though, Pahuja seems to be weaving a more subtle story as she tracks the process of two different camps for young Indian women: the month long “beauty boot camp” for the twenty Miss India Pageant finalists, who are taught to walk, to speak, to dress, to display themselves for stage and cameras; and the Hindu nationalist Durga Vahini camp for adolescent girls, who are likewise trained but according to a quite different set of norms. The film asks, how are both paradigms in all of their glory equally dignifying and disempowering for the women they subsume?  Does modernity occur respectively or irrespective of tradition?

In its exploration of these questions, the film enters two ostensibly opposed worlds that culminate in beauty pageants and supermodels on the one hand and political rallies and powerful female purveyors of Hindutva (a concept meaning loosely “Hinduness” and championed by various Hindu nationalist organizations) on the other.  One set of women submit to botoxing, skin bleaching and instructions for losing weight and fitting into bikinis, while the other set, also upon command, run in fields in preparation for the full defense of their religion against foreigners, Christians and Muslims—by violence if necessary—and submit to vicious exhortations about the false promises of careers and feminism. The camps emerge as comparable institutionalized modes for the training and cultivating of young Indian women as competent subjects, despite the differences in how that subjecthood is defined.

Does the jarring ease of the cuts between images of the two spaces reinforce the exclusivity of the two domains or foreground their commensurability?  The stitching of the film yields the provocative reflection that perhaps, in fact, tradition is modern.  The film spends time with participants from both worlds, but its two central characters, Prachi, avid Hindutva camp counselor, and Pooja, reigning Miss India and supermodel extraordinaire, both occupy the same temporality.  They embody a tension between two visions of modernity.  Must there be a resolution? Does their confrontation preclude co-existence or confirm it?  Confident and eager, even fervent, in their potential contributions to contemporary society, Durga Vahini campers do not think of themselves as stuck in a timeless past.  The scenes of Prachi in a t-shirt and jeans, expressing her ambivalence about marriage, cut against pageant finalist Ankita’s critique of the pageant-world’s aggressive objectifications of the female body—of her own body—move the film away from binary reductions.

The two worlds partake in both direct and indirect critiques of each other. Though the pageant itself has frequently been the target of protests by the Hindu religious right, the beauty pageant contestants do not think of themselves as un-Indian, as alleged by the protesters.  In the backseat of a car, with sunglasses on and nails done, these women intelligently discuss how eating burgers does not make them any less Indian than practicing yoga renders an American “Indian.”  What does it mean to be a modern Indian woman? Who is vested in shaping this definition? How does the complex and even defunct nature of an Indian national identity challenge any one conclusion? In its emphasis on extremes, however, the film overlooks a resounding middle.  While the point that India is in a state of flux and angst is well-taken, the vast majority of Indian women are neither militant Hindu fundamentalists nor Botox-injected supermodels.  In this talk of the modern Indian woman, where is the moderate Indian woman who embraces and rejects, at her will and according to the choices available to her, aspects of “modernity” and “tradition”?

Ruhi Singh, Miss India contestant, poses during the swimsuit portion of the pageant. Film still from "The World Before Her," source: gat.ca media.

The film moves between reinforcing and blurring modernity and tradition as categories of distinction.  In this process, the beauty pageant models are inarguably cast as “modernity” and the Durga Vahini girls as “tradition.”  The positing of religion as antithetical to modernity is a common conjecture that simply does not correspond to lived realities. Unfortunately, The World Before Her at least partially perpetuates that equation. Multiple forms of organized religious practice and personal observation pervade Indian homes of all classes, but we see little of that here. Audiences familiar with India may know this, and fill in some of the missing information themselves, but viewers outside India may come away with an unfortunately limited impression. Even beyond the place of religion, in some current Indian contexts, such as state governments, Hindu nationalism (“tradition”) is happily reconciled with capitalist consumption and neoliberal development models (“modernity”).  Elsewhere, events such as the beauty pageant or women drinking alcohol in pubs are diagnosed as transgressive of “tradition” and provoke violent confrontations, as Pahuja demonstrates in the film with graphic news footage. How are we to make sense of the incompatibilities and reconciliations of the two?  Perhaps in remembering that there are not just “two” ideas about tradition and modernity, nor just “two Indias.”

Could a film be similarly made about Indian men? No.  Nations’ identities have very often been mapped onto and played out on women’s bodies, a process which is ongoing across the world today.  The film powerfully illustrates the ways in which, specifically, Indian women are made to embody a palpable tension between tradition and modernity.  Further, The World Before Her poignantly foregrounds its heroines not as individuals but as parts of families who are deeply entangled in questions of mobility and maintenance. An extended scene in which we watch the pageant with contestant Ruhi’s parents at their modest home in Jaipur is a powerful reminder of just how hopeful they are that in winning the pageant, their daughter will gain access to opportunities they could never provide for her on their own. Finally, we are shown that conflict arises not just between, but also within.  Prachi, Pooja, Ankita, and Ruhi all express discomfort with the implications of the lifestyles they’ve invested in upholding and identify moments of both oppression and opportunity in their experiences.

Durga Vahini camp leader Prachi Trivedi bringing her charges into line. Film still from "The World Before Her," source: gat.ca media.

In the casting of Prachi as the central heroine, the film subtly raises the issue of sexual orientation and gender expression. Prachi describes herself as “not a girlish girl” and acknowledges that these kinds of girls irritate her—and even that she enjoys intimidating them.  She wryly explains that God made her a combination of boy and girl—“God was in a different mood when he made me”—and that being her parents’ only child, she was allowed to act on aspects of “both” sides of her identity. This ambivalence seems a source of pride for her, certainly nothing to be ashamed of or downplay.  Her objection to marriage (we can definitely assume to a man) genuinely seems to stem from her desire to give herself fully to the parishad or movement.  That this objection could also be related to Prachi’s ambivalent gender expression is a connection to which her parents, her father at least (as we do not get to hear her mother speak much), seem oblivious.  Prachi is quite obviously butch for those for whom this adjective has any meaning. This is an unusual chance to think about non-heteronormative gender expression in the absence of established alternatives, where being gay or lesbian might not be recognizable or articulated in the same ways, and where heterosexual marriage might be more easily reconciled with in spite of one’s “conflicting” sexual orientation.

The women featured in the film have a distinct awareness of their social position as girl children. Prachi and Pooja both speak of having a special sense of purpose just for being alive, given the high number of female infanticides in India (the film cites that 750,000 girls a year are aborted there).  In reflecting on, and justifying, her father’s use of corporal punishment to discipline her—including burning her with a hot iron poker—Prachi speaks of being indebted to her father for “letting her live” even though she was a girl. Thus she sees no shame in his insistence that, as he says, she must be a “perfect product.”  Pooja’s mother relates that her husband was adamant that Pooja, their second daughter, be aborted. She resisted, and her husband persisted, suggesting adoption and even infanticide once Pooja was born. This time the mother’s refusal led to his departure from the family.  And Ruhi shares that her determination to win the Miss India title comes from a sense of obligation to prove to her parents that their creation is a worthy one.  The juxtaposition of these stories from seemingly different worlds connects the characters through their social vulnerabilities as women.

Thanks to scenes evoking both repulsion and deep sympathy towards the “ultramodern” models and the “ultratraditional” Hindutva campers, we are left wondering where women’s liberation lies.  And, of course, if such a question is itself a modern imposition.  The film’s powerful commentary concludes with the reminder that, whatever goes down, the fates of the two, of the many, are intertwined.  Proudly raising her saffron sash, to be donned on graduation day, one Durga Vahini camper endearingly cheers, “Just like Miss India, Miss World.”

 

If you’re in New York, catch The World Before Her in the Tribeca Film Festival. If you’re in Toronto, you’ll have the chance to watch the Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival, May 2nd-6th. Preview the film here and on the film website, http://www.worldbeforeher.com. And look for our interview with director Nisha Pahuja, coming soon.

Natasha Raheja is a first-year Ph.D. student in Anthropology at NYU. Her research interests are in the areas of performance and consumption. 

With support from the Henry R. Luce initiative on Religion and International Affairs.