It is just past dusk. Rows of young girls, clad in white salwar kameezes and orange dupattas sit still, every eye on the lady at the podium before them. She is telling them about the perils of being too educated, only to have their heads in the clouds.
The camera inches closer to the girls’ faces. One nervously chews away at her lips as the speaker orders them to get the idea of equality of the sexes out of their heads immediately. “Can you really hide your natural weakness or character?” demands the speaker, as another girl gulps.
Canada-based filmmaker Nisha Pahuja’s documentary, The World Before Her, exposes the shockingly contrasting world Indian women live in. To do this, she juxtaposes lives of girls in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Durga Vahini, a militant Hindu fundamentalist group, and beauty pageant contestants. The World Before Her won the Best Feature Documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.
Pahuja, who was born in Delhi and raised in Toronto, Canada, studied English literature, and worked with the social services. At the age of 28, she worked as a researcher on a documentary about NRIs looking for life partners through arranged marriage. “After that stint, I knew I wanted to make documentaries all my life.” Pahuja’s first documentary, Bollywood Bound (1999) was about NRIs making it big in Bollywood, and her second documentary, Diamond Road (2007) was about blood diamonds.
“The concept of justice appeals to me the most, and one which looks beyond popular perception.” Pahuja decided to pursue the idea behind The World Before Her when she attended the homecoming of Yukta Mookhey, Miss World in 2007. “I didn’t get the hullabaloo, but I was moved at the adulation. “The battle I chose to focus on is one between tradition and ‘modernity’, fundamentalism and capitalism and how this plays out on the bodies of women. In some ways, what hangs in the balance is not just the future of women in this country but the very future of the country itself — how can democracy flourish in a place so obsessed with sons it aborts 750,000 girls every year?” wonders Pahuja. “I don’t agree with the Durga Vahini’s communalism and sexism, and it was painful to be around that. But I felt it all needed to be understood. The Durga Vahini is also against market-driven capitalism, and does not think capitalism is synonymous with modernity. They aren’t opposed to infrastructural development, for instance, but oppose the invasion of satellite television.
There’s much to think about here.”
Prachi Trivedi, one of the film’s protagonists, is seen telling the camera that she can kill for Hindutva and Durga Vahini’s beliefs. However, when her father proudly tells the camera that he scorched her foot with an iron rod at the age of seven — to teach her not to lie — she nods devotedly. “Prachi has been shaped by things bigger than herself, and, given her integrity and gravitas, I wonder how she could change things around her if she were this same person under different circumstances. In spite of her extreme views, she is surprisingly empathetic. Her right-wing father is very a empathetic person, too,” says Pahuja.
The ‘other’ world Pahuja explores is the one with the beauty pageant contestants, wherein their bodies are often the yardstick of their ‘modernity’. The filmmaker says she was unaware of the stark, ironic twist which was revealed during the shoot. “The pageant winner, Ruhi Singh, was going to be aborted, just like Prachi. Her mother walked out on her marriage to save her.”
Pahuja is currently working toward releasing the documentary in India. “Through the film, I want the ‘other’ to become familiar. I think I achieved it somewhere when Prachi’s father broke down after watching Ruhi’s story, even though she is the bikini-toting model — the ‘other’ — in the film.”