Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Film documents two starkly different paths for girls in India

An Indo-Canadian filmmaker depicts two sides of the same coin with a hard-hitting documentary on pageants, capitalism and nationalism that's taking India by storm.
Miss India 2009 Pooja Chopra on the set of the documentary The World Before Her. Courtesy Nisha Pahuja
Miss India 2009 Pooja Chopra on the set of the documentary The World Before Her. Courtesy Nisha Pahuja

Prachi Trivedi is a 24-year-old Indian woman who says she will kill to defend Hinduism if she has to. Ruhi Singh is a 19-year-old Miss India contestant, made to walk around with her head and upper body swathed in cloth, so that judges can gauge how “hot” her legs are. 

The contrast between these two worlds, and their surprising similarities, is the subject of the Indo-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s acclaimed documentary The World Before Her, which finally came to India this month, two years after it was shown at international film festivals (the 2012 Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Documentary).

After showing in all the major Indian cities in its first two weeks, the film is now moving to smaller cities such as Surat, Kochi and Ahmedabad, and appears to be on its way to becoming India’s highest-grossing documentary.

Pahuja’s film has brought in audiences partly because it reveals hitherto unseen scenes of the Durga Vahini camps for girls, run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a powerful Hindu nationalist organisation.

“I spent two years building a relationship with the camps,” says Pahuja. The result is some astonishingly intimate, yet non-judgemental footage.

Prachi, who has been going to the Durga Vahini camps since she was 3 years old, says: “If I have to, I will build a bomb to defend my religion.” All the girls are shown how to handle crude rifles, but also told their place is at home.

“People talk about equality between the sexes, but can you hide your own weakness?” asks a camp organiser.

Pahuja’s singular achievement may be to show the human, vulnerable face of the right wing. Prachi is a sort of Indian everywoman, longing to be free, but trapped by patriarchy. “My life is not to get married or have children. I want to work for the VHP,” she says, even as her domineering father interrupts. “Prachi must get married,” he says. “That is her duty. What she wants or doesn’t want is not important.”

In sharp contrast, the film also follows Ruhi, an equally determined girl whose family supports her dream of becoming Miss India. She is sucked into the pageant world, described by the pageant’s speech consultant as “like a factory, really”.

There are other parallels between Prachi and the Miss India contestants.

“I am a girl-child but my father lets me live,” says Prachi, explaining her attachment to her father. Meanwhile, the former Miss India Pooja Chopra talks about how her father abandoned her mother because she gave birth to a second girl, and even suggested that she be killed.

Pahuja says she did not want to release the film in India earlier, because “it’s a struggle for documentaries to find an audience in the country”. But the Delhi gang rape in December 2012 changed her mind. Pahuja decided to screen it in India and to that effect launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly US$47,000 (Dh172,640).

Pahuja also roped in the Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap to present the film in theatres. “We tell women in India they have a certain place,” Kashyap says. “I see their dream to escape these ‘boxes’.”

Pahuja has faced criticism from some viewers for her black-and-white depiction and for not giving a voice to the millions of female doctors, lawyers and teachers in India who occupy the grey area in between.

But the filmmaker is clear about her goal. “If you try to say everything in one film, you end up saying nothing. I wanted to focus on the twin evils of religious extremism and capitalism, because these are global issues, too,” she says.

Prachi and the Durga Vahini camps have refused to talk to the media about the film, but Pahuja says they liked the film, because it finally showed their point of view. But the most telling line in the film is the last, as the confused Prachi admits that she is fighting for a system that wants to keep her from following her dreams. “But being a girl,” she says, “I can’t do anything.”

The World Before Her is available on Netflix