Nisha Pahuja in her film 'The World Before Her' takes along the journeys’ of two dynamically opposite women- Miss India contestant Ruhi Singh and Durga Vahini youth leader Prachi Trivedi.
The movie begins with the introduction of the two women and at once establishes their starkly contrasting backgrounds and individualities.
While, Singh is a 19 year-old girl from Jaipur eyeing the Miss India crown, Trivedi, 20 year-old Durga Vahini Youth leader, is a staunch follower of the Hindutva ideology who wants to dedicate her entire life to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
If the mantra at the Miss India boot camp is ‘It hurts? It looks fab’- as the models strike poses that are perfect but also terribly painful- then the tenants at the Durga Vahini camp follow the predictable patriarchal ethos propagated by the Sangh-Parivar.
The fashion and glamour industry, as Pahuja claims, is one profession in India where women are treated equally. It allows young girls to dream big and achieve their materialistic ambitions.
Singh’s mother claims how it was good for Ruhi to move out of Jaipur to Mumbai where she can follow her dreams without being chastised.
The film captures Singh and her family as well as other contestants talking about how it is all about a woman’s choice and how the regressive ideologies of fundamentalists hurts the freedom of women.
The ‘equal treatment’ however does come at the cost of absolute atomisation of the woman’s body. The dehumanization of a woman here is complete, as for the industry these models are often nothing more than props and ‘apparel hangers’.
Ankita Shorey, one of the Miss India contestants contemplates that at what costs she should try to fulfill her dreams. She has reservations wearing a bikini and wonders how she would cope these kinds of demands of her career.
In a very poignant scene, the film captures the objectification of the women. It reminds you how women are reduced to mere body parts, an object of desire, most often subject to exploitation.
The judges at the contest want to see and judge 'just the legs' of the contestants and for this, the models are made to wear white cloths over their torsos with crudely cut holes for their eyes. The girls are now simply pairs of legs strutting in front of the cameras and nothing more. The burkha-like cloth over their bodies is not regressive or suffocating anymore though one of the contestants becomes anxious as she has claustrophobia.
Even as the industry continues to treat the girls in this manner, Pahuja and her crew have made sure they come across as real people. The contestants are not portrayed as mannequins and eye-candies but as humans with flaws, insecurities and apprehensions about making it in the contest.
The film constantly moves from the world of fashion to breeding grounds of fundamentalism.
At the Durga Vahini camp in Aurangabad, we see young girls between the age of 15-25 trained in rifle shooting, martial arts and obviously brainwashed into Hindutva idealogy.
They are told that Muslims are like the Suparnaka (a female character from the Ramayana who to tries to seduce Ram and Lakshman) and Christians are sly like the she-demon Putana ( A character from the Mahabharata who tries to poison the Krishna on the pretext of breast-feeding him.)
The result is evident. Young girls confess to the camera how proud they are of not having a Muslim friend, how good it felt to shoot a rifle. 'Doodh mango kheer denge, Kashmir maango cheer denge' (Ask us milk, we will give you rice-pudding, Ask us Kashmir, we will kill you), the girls chant.
The film exposes the Hindutva ideology of hyprocrisy who emulate the west, but selectively.
They are all for modernity when it comes to industrialisation, build infrastructure and open economy even when it comes at the cost of trampling over the socio-economic lower denominator and the environment. But when it comes to freedom and equality for women, they believe it is against the Hindutva culture and religion.
At the camp, young minds are taught about the 'Dharma' (duties) of a woman. Which is of course is to bear children for the sake of society and stay within the four walls of the house. The choice of a women to have a career, stay unmarried are deemed outrageous.
Trivedi here is a staunch believer of the Hindutva principles. She asserts that she is anti-Gandhi and declares she wants to be the next Sadhvi Pragya whom she calls a saint.
Her father is proud of her and the way he raised her. 'The product has to be perfect', he says referring to his daughter.
That's what Prachi is, a mere product, trained to fight the supposed doom of the Hindu religion brought by the minority communities. And Prachi is grateful for the strict upbringing that included getting beaten up by her father. She is in fact grateful that her father kept her alive even though she was a girl child.
At this time the one of India's biggest failures of having distorted gender ratio surfaces in the film. Former Miss India Pooja Sharma who was rejected by the father's family speaks about the how her father did not want her to exist in the world.
Pahuja again must be commended as none of the characters are portrayed with judgemental eyes. The film is more of a narative that holds up a mirror to the two extreme paths a woman could lead.
Far from judging Prachi, we end up sympathising with her as she speaks wanting the choice to not get married. She is aware of the contradiction between her desire and her belief system.
All these things come across thanks to the use skillful editing that intercuts between Singha and Trivedi's world, bringing out the parallels and differences in their lives keeps the movie fast-paced while bringing out important issues. The clever choice of music that heightens the lead characters high and low points throughout the film.
'The World Before Her' must be watched as to see how westernisation has in fact strengthened patriarchy and women continue to struggle to have the freedom of choice.
Watch the trailer below: