The World Before Her (documentary)
DIRECTOR: Nisha Pahuja
On the face of it, Ruhi Singh and Prachi Trivedi have nothing in common. One is an English-speaking middle-class aspirant to the good life which she believes will be hers if only she can win a beauty crown. The other is a gutsy inheritor of a belief system which thinks that aggressive Hindutva can set India, and her, on the path to progress.
But there is something chillingly similar to both — an inability to comprehend that the kind of freedom they are seeking comes with conditions, and chains, attached. In Nisha Pahuja’s well-crafted, thought-provoking documentary, we switch back and forth between the two girls and their mentors and families, as they are shown going about their business: one going through the grind of treadmills and botox shots and style coaches, the other training young girls like herself in a Durga Vahini camp, where they learn the use of high-pitched rhetoric against other religions as well as long-barreled guns.
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Nineteen-year-old Ruhi’s sole ambition, fuelled by her parents, is to win the Miss India crown. We see her striving towards it with all her might, accepting boot-camp conditions of diet and grooming and the other stuff that goes into the winning of the contest.
Prachi’s bushy unibrow bristles, as she says, “Frankly, I hate Gandhi.” Her conviction in the tenets of Hindutva, of the kind she has been taught and she is now imparting to the girls attending the Durga Vahini camp, is absolute. Her belief in her father, who once branded her foot with a hot iron to discipline, is also unshaken.
Ruhi doesn’t see the irony of being arrayed as so much pretty flesh or have a problem with hearing a judge, himself a former successful model, say: “We need to see their bodies.” Ditto with the “other side”, where a sari-clad instructor asks, while demonstrating how to use the gun: “Poori zindagi kanda batata kaatenge kya?” Is escape from cutting potatoes-and-onions all (our) lives in the kitchen only about being able to use a gun?
It is a fascinating double portrait, and Prachi’s is the fresher voice because we don’t hear it, nor see her face reflected in the mass media. Pahuja’s access to the Durga Vahini camp, she told me, came after much persuasion, and trust being built. It is the first time cameras have been allowed in, and you can see the filmmaker’s carefully balancing act, which allows her to question without sounding judgmental. Which is wonderful because it allows us to make up our own minds about these young girls and the life they are trying to carve for themselves.
But the twinning is problematic. The tight focus on these two worlds leaves out the other Indias that may not be confined to the single-minded rigour of either camp, beauty or Durga Vahini. There are not just two Indias, as a doyenne in the beauty business and at one time such a popular TV face, declares. There are many more.
The filmmaker is heard telling Prachi that she (Prachi) is “fighting for a belief system that is actually trying to control (you)”. The same thing applies to Ruhi as well, but we don’t hear it. There are tyrannies of all kinds, and breaking free can be a tricky, nuanced business.