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THE WORLD BEFORE HER ASSIGNMENT

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POLITICAL SCIENCE
TO
MAm
BY
VARSHA BHOOTRA
PG-1
ABOUT MOVIE
The world before her is a provocative film of dreams and freedom of an Indian women. We
examine two girls with a different paths but a common goal that is empowerment.
EMPOWERMENT conveys a wide range of interpretations one of them being power over
oneself. This fascinating portrait of two women reveals a truth of Indian culture and startles a
difference between urban and rural, jeans and saris create a conflict between old tradition and
modernity. In focusing on two particularly young and fascinate women--one a militant Hindu
nationalist, the other a contestant for Miss India. Both Prachi and Ruhi manifest a will for
female empowerment but both have different views on how this is achieved. Prachi desires
the way to achieve empowerment is through her mind and strength; she still confined with
Indian tradition whereas Ruhi believes in female empowerment by exposing her beauty in a
non-conservative way and seeks in fame and liberty from a typical Indian culture.
WESTERN CULTURE v/s INDIAN CULTURE
Across India, there are 20 young women gathered in the Mumbai to compete in the Miss
India pageant. They had been selected from thousands of aspiring beauty queens with lots of
dreams and hopes, people in a country gone mad for beauty contests. Whatever the
difficulties, winning the title means fame, name, a fast-forward career path and freedom from
the constraints of a patriarchal society. The 20 finalists will spend 30 days before the pageant
going through a "beauty boot camp" to optimize their articulation, gaits and facial
expressions and help them to fit in “international beauty contests”.
Among the finalists one of them is Ruhi Singh, from the famous “pink city” Jaipur in
northern India. The World
before Her reveals Ruhi to
be anything but a victim of
the beauty boot camp that
represents opportunity. 'You
earn for yourself, you gain
respect," .Ruhi has dreams
and aspirations of equality,
financial independence, a
veteran of such contests, she
submits to the beauty regime,
including skin lightening,
with a determination to win.
Her motives certainly include
making her supportive
parents proud and earning
lots of money. But what this
fame, name, and title
ultimately mean to Ruhi is
this: "I think of myself as a very modern young girl and I want freedom." For women in
Ruhi's world, a beauty pageant is a road to liberation. There’s no question the Miss India
contest is vapid, exploitative and degrading; at one point, organizer Marc Robinson, in order
to better judge the shapeliness of his contestants’ legs, has them parade up and down the
runway covered in linen sacks, with only their limbs exposed ) .This brought divisions to the
forefront, thousands of people protested. The protests were about globalisation and
westernisation of India and the threat to Indian culture.
Today in India there are hundreds or more beauty pageants. Is this a nation realising it cannot
stop a global effect? All Ruhi wants is to be noticed and a chance of a different life. That life
comes at a price of being told how to talk, walk, and smile and various skin lightening
treatments, she does not win the crown of Miss India and is bitterly disappointed. Ruhi goes
home feeling rejected and talks of one day marrying and having a family. Ruhi has been
through the process of ‘manufactured polishing of an Indian woman’ has it given her more
agency in her life? Perhaps not if she wants to go back to the traditional life of marry and
have children. Was being assertive, and desirable only temporary whilst she was part of the
beauty pageant?
Prachi is an instructor at Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad. She
has long been nurtured in its religion-stoked dogma. The parallel stories follow a linear,
logical structure towards a logical end, not necessarily with a neat deductible conclusion.
The outrage of the documentarian is quiet. What she makes us see and hear is deserving of
outrage, of course: teenage beauty-pageant contestants undergoing Botox pricks under their
lips or covered from head to torso and made to walk on a beachside ramp just so their legs
can be judged: the chilling patriarchal bombast of Prachi’s father, who wants her to be a wife
and mother to be complete; who hits physically to teach her lessons in his brand of truth and
discipline; the revelation that Miss India 2009 escaped female infanticide because of her
mother’s will. We never see and barely hear the film-maker in the course of the film, except
for some softly voiced, pointed questions.
The film-maker’s access to the lives of both women is a feat. As it is with journalism, what
she finally does with that access is partly in the realm of ethics. The lack of overt
editorializing and absence of voices and opinions from outside the worlds Ruhi, Prachi and
their friends, competitors, sisters and families inhabit, lend the film false neutrality. False,
because Pahuja knows her position on the Durga Vahini and the Miss India Contest—both
disturb her deeply.
Are Prachi and Ruhi more alike than they are different then? Yes, they are.
We see Ruhi’s parents watching their daughter in the televised Miss India contest in their
sparse bedroom. We see Prachi and her parents watching the same contest with disgust. We
get glimpses of the minds of small girls at a Durga Vahini camp, copying up to the militant
Hindu rhetoric. We see Prachi snap, just short of tears, in extreme close-ups.
Pahuja possibly retained what she got from her subjects towards the end, after a period of
acclimatizing them to the camera and her. Her editor David Kazala has pieced the parallel
stories together superbly, shaping a narrative that builds up block by block to the happily
ambivalent climax. Towards the end, the film almost becomes entertaining.
It is obvious Pahuja is slightly more embracing of the aspiring beauty queens than she is one
of the Durgas. There is more backstory to Ruhi. She approaches the dolled-up girls with
humour—there’s even a hint of black humour in the question-answer round of the contest—
and sympathy.
But even when we see Prachi at her home, seemingly comfortable in front of Pahuja’s
camera, being herself, she is the film’s striking Other. We know nothing about the very
young girls we meet at Prachi’s gruelling physical training labs. Why, despite all the work,
are they full of happy smiles? Like Ruhi’s Miss India contest, is a Durga Vahini camp their
escape? Has that escape also trapped them? Pahuja does not quite get comfortable with their
fractured and colonized minds.
Unlike Ruhi, Prachi Trivedi does not embrace the influence of ‘western culture’; she sees it
as a threat to the Indian way of life and culture. As a youth leader for Durga Vahini it is her
job to ready the girls with physical combat training, rhetoric on the Hindu religion, give the
girls strength and perseverance. Malaben Rawal the President of the organisation says the
girls begin the process of “transformation into tigers”. According to the Director of the film,
Pahuja said: the film aims ‘to show the complexity, not answer the complexity’ of the Durga
Vahini movement. In one scene of the documentary the girls are marching in the streets
chanting: ‘Mark your foreheads with blood and welcome your enemy with bullets.’
According to Prachi and her father Hemant ji, Christians, Muslims and globalisation are the
enemy of the Hindu people. Prachi appears to be a confident woman and relishes her role as a
camp leader, but she also reveals to Pahuja that her father beats her and she accepts it because
‘she is a girl’ and lucky to have been born. As per director: ‘the film succeeds in showing the
camp’s ironic function as a safe house for young minds and bodies at war with gender
expectations – a space in which oppressive domestic and gender protocols are suspended.’
The camp also tells recruits that too much education is a bad thing, women should conform to
their ‘natural weakness’ and be a Hindu women of example from 5000 years age. This
movement justifies its actions because of outside influences like globalisation and other
religions. According to Kinnvall: ‘In terms of fundamentalism, globalisation often becomes
associated with deteriorated conditions for the ordinary person.’ She continues to argue:
‘these feelings of ‘anti-western’ and ‘anti-elite’ are often used by fundamentalist forces to
mobilise those who feel left out.’ Kinnvall states that movements like the Hindutva
movement use similar ideas of discontentment not against the elite but ‘in relation to a
significant ‘other’ – Muslims who are singled out as the cause of distress.’ Prachi uses the
globalisation argument as a vehicle of proof to rally against ‘other’ in this case western ideals
and lifestyle and religions impeding Indian culture.
Kinnvall suggests there is ‘a notion of indigenous culture being pure, compassionate and
tolerant as opposed to the West being aggressive, rational and impersonal.’ She also suggests
that ‘Hindutva politics has to build on a pan-Indian hegemonic identity to override localised
identities, if it is to appeal to new middle classes.’ This discourse requires a romanticism and
glorification of India’s past to those displaced by modernisation.
Conclusion
I am not a fan of documentaries but this one just pulled me towards itself. Written and
directed by Nisha Pahuja, the film explores the complex and conflicting environment for
young girls in India by profiling two young women participating in two very different types
of training camp —beauty contest by Ruhi Singh, and a militant Hindu nationalist Prachi
Trivedi with the Durga Vahini camp.
This film draws contrast between two very different worlds. It also establishes a parallel
connection of how the girls feel controlled by the system they love.
On one hand, it's Prachi Trivedi who is so passionate about the Hindu culture and the Vishwa
Hindu Parishad (VHP) that she wouldn't mind killing Muslims and Christians if they pose
danger to Hinduism. She wants to become a priestess (sadhvi) and spend her life working for
the VHP. We also get to know her adorable (this is the most sarcastic I've ever been) father
who says that it is the dharma (the eternal duty) of every girl to get married and bear children.
A woman is not a woman until she gives birth to a children, says a man. Prachi has attended
the Durga Vahini camps since a very young age and she now believes in the system by heart.
She teaches the same beliefs to other little girls and we see how tomorrow's young women
are taught firing rifles and swear to kill Muslims and Christians if need be. They keep
repeating this statement and that was the thing that appalled me the most. Is that what we are
teaching our kids? Is this what Hinduism teaches us? They are being taught that they should
get married after 18 because it's difficult to "tame" girls who are older than twenty five years.
They brainwash little girls into believing how Priyanka Chopra and other models/actresses
are bad and why you shouldn't want to be like them. The only good thing that I thought about
this boot camp is the fact that they were given self-defence training which is important for
every girl.
Now there is a totally different world of the nineteen Miss India 2011 contestants, where we
focus on Ruhi Singh who is ambitious like all the rest and wants to win the crown. We get to
see all the glamour sprinkled horrors they have to go through, some dreams and some
nightmares. We meet Miss India 2009 winner Pooja Chopra and her mother who tell us how
difficult it was for her as a single mother to raise her daughter on her own because the father
wanted to kill the girl child. Never have I ever
cried while watching a film but the moment
when her mother was telling about all her
struggles was too overwhelming.
All the Miss India contestants are 18-25 year
old girls who want to wear the jewelled crown
and be known as the Miss India. They know
what is expected of them and they are ready to
do it all, for the sake of the crown and their
career. They are what we can probably call today's empowered women who make their own
decisions and achieve what they want they want to. That illusion is shattered when one of
them doesn't want to get Botox treatment done on her face because it's uneven but has to.
That illusion is shattered when they are reduced to a pair of legs wearing a white cloak
because the photographer loves women's legs. That illusion is shattered when we see the
insecurity present in everyone's minds.
The film takes turns to plunge us into the horrifying realities of both of these worlds and we
are forced to connect them when we hear a leftover hymn chanting while watching sexy
women walk on ramp. It's infuriating to see the Durga Vahini trainer Prachi's father
commenting on how he hates women who don't respect culture, who wear skimpy clothes
whilst sitting half naked himself, watching the live telecast of the Miss India pageant. It's not
just this man but I have personally seen such people, some even my relatives, who cringe
when they see women wearing short clothes, not marrying early, pursuing their career or
pretty much anything that involves freedom.
The viewer is torn between these two ends of the spectrum and the plethora of questions that
arise. What is the way out? Is there a way out?
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