Cosmetic surgeon Jamuna Pai inspects the face of the Miss India contestant before her in Mumbai, furrows her brow and points to a blemish. The verdict: the young woman needs a botox injection in her chin because the “proportions are off by 0.6 percent.”
About 400 kilometres away in the town of Aurangabad, worlds apart from India’s financial capital, a middle-aged woman in a sari lectures adolescent girls about wanting careers.
“How can you deny 5,000 years of evidence that you are the weaker sex? Stop asking for equality,” she thunders to her audience of rapt teenagers in traditional Indian attire.
The two women in Mumbai and Aurangabad, and the subjects of their scrutiny are at the crux of Nisha Pahuja‘s film “The World Before Her,” which opens in Indian cinemas next month.
The documentary juxtaposes two training camps — one for the Durga Vahini (army of Durga), the women’s unit of the right-wing Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), and the other for the annual Miss India beauty pageant.
Pahuja said that she wanted to make a film that would explore a common theme in two worlds that at first look like they are opposites. What they have in common, Pahuja said, is that women are constantly being told, often by women themselves, that they are not good enough, whether they are being judged for their perfect legs or being pushed to give in to the patriarchal society.
“And that’s what makes it more dangerous, because it’s a combination of these two extreme perspectives and they are married to each other. That is terrifying. It is regressive ideology masquerading as progress. It will create this bubble, and people won’t be able to see beyond it,” the film-maker said.
“The World Before Her” shows girls at the Durga Vahini camp being taught martial arts and to fire a gun as part of self-defence training. The students are told these skills are essential if they are to defend Hinduism “against the threat of Islam and Christianity.”
Pahuja’s film also puts the spotlight on a boot camp for 19 women contesting in the country’s beauty pageant. Here, they are primped and pushed — often in ways they aren’t comfortable with — to make them fit the exacting standards of a contest winner.
Pahuja started work on the documentary in 2008, and didn’t complete it until four years later. The Canadian-born filmmaker said she wanted to make a documentary on the Miss India contest, but expanded the film’s scope when she heard of right-wing protests against the contest’s swimsuit round.
“It took me two years to get access to the Durga Vahini camp, but when I went there, and met Prachi (one of the camp instructors, a fiery 24-year-old who says she wants to be the next Sadhvi Pragya Singh, a Hindu woman accused of orchestrating terror attacks), I realized that this was a compelling part of the story of the Indian woman,” Pahuja, 46, told India Insight in an interview.
“The World Before Her,” won Best Feature at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, and a clutch of awards at other festivals. The documentary is backed by Indian film-maker Anurag Kashyap and actress Nandita Das.
Pahuja, who was raised in Toronto, said her film was evidence that the two ideologies — the perceived superficial consumerism of the pageant and the fundamentalism of right-wing Hindu groups — co-existed in India.
“Right now, both are winning, because of who’s coming into power,” she said, referring to the possibility that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party could take over India’s government once election results come out in May. The BJP, led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has the support of many pro-Hindu groups, many of whom have been spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric in the run-up to what is the most vicious election campaign India has seen in a while.
The regressive ideology that Pahuja speaks of is evident in the Durga Vahini camps. A young participant declares proudly that she doesn’t have, and will never have, Muslim friends. Others parrot slogans like “Kashmir mangoge toh cheer denge.” (“If you ask for Kashmir, we will rip you apart,” referring to Pakistan’s claim over the disputed Indian region of Kashmir.
The director said her aim is not just to release the film in Indian cinemas, but to make sure it is seen in places where it is unlikely to be screened, to raise awareness about women’s rights, and what it means to be a woman in India today.
“The women in ‘The World Before Her’ are extraordinary and their voices need to be heard far and wide especially after the Delhi gang rape made us realize how vulnerable many Indian women are,” said the pitch for the film’s campaign on Kickstarter, a fundraising platform used to raise capital for creative projects and businesses.
Pahuja raised 57,290 Canadian dollars (about $52,000) via backers on Kickstarter to fund a roadshow that will take the film all over India, organizing screenings in schools, colleges and communities.
At a screening this year at a well-known college in Mumbai, students peppered Pahuja with questions about the Durga Vahini camps, the right-wing ideology and the women in the camps. Very few of the questions, Pahuja said, were about the Miss India pageant.
““That kind [of] objectification of women is equally dangerous, but perhaps, in today’s urban India we are used to it, and it doesn’t jump out at much,” she said. “To me, it is equally detrimental to the image of the Indian woman, and it just shows that Indians have equated shallow consumerism with growth. That is not how it works.”