Posts Tagged ‘The World Before Her’

The World Before Her, directed by Nisha Pahuja is currently playing in select cinemas across India. Fatema Kagalwala first wrote about it on our blog, where we called it a ‘must-watch’. Here’s another post about the film by Shazia Iqbal:


“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me”

These are words of Objectivist Ayn Rand who rejected religion and faith and believed in rational reasoning as the way to make sense of life. Her words tore up the frame as the sub text every time the two protagonists (along with other girls) spoke in Nisha Pahuja’s powerful documentary ‘The World Before Her’. The irony is the world they want to capture; a world where they know they can’t be stopped has already caged them with its regressive ideologies and unfortunately they aren’t even aware of it. I watched the film a few days ago and it has been pulling me back for several reasons. Not because the film is full of strange, depressing truths about a divided India, and a women’s identity in the same, more so because it asked the very questions I have been asking of myself for years now. Who else does an atheist woman go to? I love and respect Ayn Rand and women like her who publicly shunned religion because it’s a tad bit more difficult for women to deny God than their counterparts.

I am a Muslim woman. My surname makes me a minority in a country that largely has fixed notions of the community I belong to. My gender makes me a minority in a patriarchal society. Also to make things a little more twisted for myself, I questioned and tried to reason with my religion and others, and bracketed myself in another group, the atheists. Minority again. Minority within minority is a task to pull off, I now realize. In a world where humans are so deeply fucked up, it sometime gets lonely to not even have a god but when you see the madness in the ones that have him, you know you are better off not belonging anywhere.

When asked about my faith, my regular responses are ‘I’m not a Muslim.. I’m an Atheist’, ‘Agnostic?’ Or simpler: ‘My parents follow Islam.’

‘So you are a Muslim?’
‘No, I don’t belong’
‘Don’t belong?’
‘Don’t belong to any religion.. I’m fine without knowing the truth about God’s existence.’

Somehow my answers have never been good enough to not raise eyebrows. For years I have been looking for an identity. And I have made my peace with not having one and my questions being unanswered. I don’t look at myself as a Muslim and that’s why I have not felt discriminated against though being called a Pakistani is something most Indian Muslims grow up with and get used to. I am not victimizing Muslims, just that being a minority comes with its own share of pros and cons in every part of the world. We have our own. So every time my surname separated me from the crowd and I was treated differently, I didn’t retaliate because why should I? I am not a Muslim. So I thought.

I think my parents are a rare case because they celebrated the birth of their first daughter, when everyone around was killing the female child. I was born in a small village near Patna. After two sons, they were craving for a daughter. I am not thankful to my parents for not killing me, I take it for granted as my right to live and yet the character I empathized with the most in the film is Prachi Trivedi, the 24 year old instructor at the training camp of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) because she is grateful to her father for not killing her at birth. That line made me realize how deeply complexed we are as a society.


My life is not about a movement, I don’t hate Gandhi and terrorizing people is not my idea of teaching. And yet it was Prachi’s volatile relationship with her father that touched my heart. Prachi is aware that the world that gives her strength to fight the enemies of the Hindu Culture (apparently the Muslims and Christians) is also the world that eventually asks her to follow the norms of marriage and children, something she doesn’t agree with. The ideologies that tell her women are not meant for house chores also tell her she ‘has’ to be tamed by getting married and not fly high and dream of a career. Girls don’t do that. Prachi struggles to balance the two contradicting ideologies, while asserting the right to find her way. Like Prachi, I have had my own daddy issues. My emancipated father raised me and my sister like ‘boys’. He told me very early in life about carving out a place for myself in the world. Marriage was not his idea of making a good life. It’s never been my idea of anything. We never spoke about marriage. But our relationship is volatile and argumentative because of our different belief systems of surviving in a society, where we are lesser in numbers compare to other race. It’s not about me being atheist. Although I have defied God in his presence, he is liberal enough to mostly let me think with my own head. The only one issue I have had with him is he asked his children to be quiet and not rebel because ‘we are minorities’. Under different circumstances, we fought over the same issue, and never reached common ground.

During a Ganapati festival, my mother was just back from a long stint in hospital. The noise mongers were playing loud music at 5 in the morning, and after bearing with it for days in row, I finally decided to call the police. He stopped me. ‘We are Muslims, we can’t complain. You are a girl and people don’t show their bias to women but you’ll know some day’. I argued and was told ‘ladki ho, ladki hi raho’ (You are a girl, behave like one). I struggled to understand if this was the same man who took pride in raising his daughters like sons. And whether I should be a boy and speak up or be a girl and shut up. And what’s stopping me from speaking up is it being a Muslim or being a girl? Or both? I felt suffocated in the hypocrisy of the world my father created for me. I didn’t choose to be a Muslim or a girl. Why do others have the rights that I don’t? Lottery of being born a man? Lottery of being born in a religion that’s bigger in numbers? I didn’t want this world. I wanted to make my own new one that doesn’t chain people in their own thoughts. But largely this is the reason why most anonymous in history have been women.

Somewhere halfway through the film, when you are already exposed to two very different, yet parallel, disturbing worlds, a young teen at the training camp gushes with pride ‘No, I don’t have any Muslim friends and I am proud about it’. After bearing with a few prejudices, this one felt like a sharp knife cut through the heart. I felt stifled. A few drop of tears streamed out. Why did it affect me so much when I don’t consider myself part of the community? When I proudly defy standing by any faith. When I don’t feel the need to group with a bunch of people who have similar ideologies and believe we are superior to the other race. Her words made me realize that even though I have left the religion years ago, it hasn’t left me. And in all probability, it never will.

Her words reminded me of how I felt years ago, when Bombay’s lifeline, the trains were attacked on 7/11. I worked as an Asst Art director back then and was shooting in a studio at Filmcity for a feature film. We were working with a couple of stars and anticipated an early pack up that evening. But as soon as the blast news came out of the vanity, the set became a story in itself. Chaos reigned. People panicked and called home. I managed to call home and found everyone safe, except my brother, who none of us could trace. Production decided to lock up the set till the bombings stopped. It went on for 11 minutes but we kept getting news. Mostly post blast rumours. My mother realized that the sixth train that blew up was my brother’s regular ride back home. That was it. I fell on a chair and broke down. A couple of Asst directors gathered around me. Out of nowhere the production manager, a paan chewing middle aged man, shrugged them aside and attacked me in his stringent language ‘kyun ro rahi hai? Tum logon ne toh karaya hai yeh sab’ (why are you crying when you and your people have executed this). I looked at him. The asst director retaliated ‘What the hell! She is a girl…’

He attacked further, ‘the girls carry the bomb inside the veil.. ’ He said that and spat his chewed betel leaf next to me. My friend blabbered something that I didn’t hear. I was numb. I don’t know the chemical composition of a bomb, not even as much as Prachi’s knowledge of an AK-47. But we are both victims here. I have never worn a veil and have fought against people who support and justify women being bound in a veil. I realized that I belong neither to a community that wears the veil nor to the one that’s judges it and labels them a terrorist because of it. I feel that spit on my face every time I recollect this incident. I remembered my father’s words and reasoned his fear of speaking out as a minority.

Ruhi is a Miss India contestant who dreams of winning the crown to make her parents of their product, that’s her. Jo-Ann Endicott in Pina Bausch’s Walzer struts around angrily, frustrated and enraged at a world that tells her how to carry off her body. She chalks out a boundary in different spacial forms her body creates and repeatedly screams ‘I don’t need your help or anybody else’s help, Thank you!! ’ She describes how she is asked to sit with an erect posture, so her legs don’t look fat and ugly. She struggles to keep her thighs together because they fall apart or hold her boobs up with a bra or they hang, sometimes right till the floor. There is rule for every part of the body, the fingers, wrist, elbow, the long neck, the longer hair, the various ways of doing up the hair, which lets the world categorize as classy or trashy. She wants to let her hair down and be herself. She wants to hide herself behind her long hair but they wont let her. Her face, her torso, her spine, her legs, her gait is all exposed for her to be judged. This is the gist of what beauty pageants stand for. Girls in this country have grown up dreaming of the crown from the time Sushmita Sens and Aishwarya Rais won the Miss world crown and made India ‘Proud’. The beauty standards pretty much changed in this country since then and how.

I would love to say fuck your fascist beauty standards if I myself wasn’t falling prey to it every now and then.

It was only a couple of months ago when I went to a skin clinic for a regular acne issue; they asked me to undergo a surgery for a sharper Jawline. A half an hour procedure that would apparently change my life. I was dumbfounded. The doctor told me it would give me confidence to face the world with a new face. Ha! Fortunately I didn’t think anything wrong with the current one. I smiled and walked away. But a lot of women fall prey. The rising numbers of these clinics are a proof of that. Everything is wrong with a world that tells a women a certain body type, certain shapes, particular complexion are what makes an ideal women, empowers them. Botox, skin whiteners, weight control, boob jobs are not going to let me have my place in the world. A director once belittled me when I refused to do a fairness cream TVC. He said if not me, somebody else would take it up. Exactly! I am aware.

Wearing a bikini doesn’t empower women. Neither does holding a gun and being able to pull the trigger. You are not empowered by exposing your bra strap or by being married and raising kids at 18; not by having ideal torso and limbs, not even by internalising the politics of hatred in a religious camp.

If this is power, I don’t want it. I want the opportunity to voice my opinion and be heard respectfully. I do not ask for permission before I speak. It is my right as a human. I do not want a career to escape the world you have made; I want to create my own world. Don’t allot me my space. Give me the freedom to carve my own niche. That would be empowerment. Hope Prachi and Ruhi and thousands like them comprehend this and liberate themselves from the world that is thrown before them.

Thank you- Nisha Pahuja for this hard-hitting story and Anurag Kashyap for supporting it.

(Shazia Iqbal is an Art director, and has worked in Films and Advertising since last eight years. She designed Dum Maaro Dum and many other films. Her script was selected for NFDC’s Director’s Lab.)



After doing the fest rounds, Nisha Pahuja’s critically acclaimed documentary, ‘The World Before Her’ is all set to release on May 16th, 2014. Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap is presenting it and PVR Directors Rare is releasing the film. Moving between the worlds of a Durga Vahini training camp and the beauty boot camp of the Miss India Pageant, the film is a powerful story that could not have come at a better time. Some of us managed to watch the film earlier and we have put it in MFC’s Must Watch recco list. Click here to read our recco post on the film.

We are posting two clips from the film – one from the film, and one that did not make the cut. We also got Nisha to write on these two clips.

1. Pooja’s story

Director’s Note – I remember when Pooja told me the story of almost being killed at birth for being a girl..that moment became a turning point for me in terms of the focus of the film. I knew it had to be about the struggles that so many Indian women continue to face. It also changed the way I looked at Miss India–suddenly it was no longer passe or just simply was so much more complex. I had to ask myself “Given the Indian context, can I disregard my Western prejudices and see a beauty pageant as “empowering.” It’s something I still grapple with..

2. Tulsi’s story

Director’s Note – When I began the research in 2008, I was determined to find a young woman from a village who harboured dreams of becoming a Miss India.  Somehow I did. Meet Tulsi – achingly lovely..a symbol of “aspiring India.” Tulsi’s story was incredible, she comes from a village in UP that got electricity in 2009, and that only intermittently. Her grandfather was a freedom fighter and and there was a temple that had been built in his honour. Tulsi’s mother did not want to get married but was forced to.  So in an act of defiance on her wedding night she chopped off all her hair and began to dress like a man. Somehow she was accepted. She decided she would allow her daughter to do as she wished. When Tulsi told her parents she wanted to move to Bombay and pursue her Miss India dream, they sent her off with the money they had been saving for her dowry.  The Miss India team never responded to her application or her pics and when I last saw her in 2010 she was having a hard time and it seemed clear to me that she was being exploited, but didn’t want to talk about it in too much detail. I still get the odd email from her but she never responds when I write her back. I had always wondered how her grandfather, who had fought for India’s freedom would feel about Tulsi’s dream of winning a beauty pageant. Was this the freedom he was prepared to die for?



The makers of the film are also running a kickstarter campaign with the goal of taking the film to a wider audience – schools, colleges, public screenings. Click here to read about their plan and do contribute if you want to support the initiative. The aim is to raise US$ 50,000 out of which they have already got $ 41,000. Now they have just a week left to achieve the target. So if you feel for it, do contribute generously. The film needs your support.

Some of us had the privilege of watching Nisha Pahuja’s critically-acclaimed, controversial and undoubtedly brilliant documentary “The World Before Her” last year, and had nothing but praise for it. In fact, we even wrote about it at length and put it on our Must Watch film recco list. We’re now delighted to announce that after having a theatrical release in US and Canada, and winning accolades and top awards in the prestigious International film festivals, the film will get a release in India via PVR Director’s Rare in 6 cities — Bombay, Delhi, Kolkata, Pune, Ahmedabad and Bangalore — on April 25. More about the film below.



The World Before Her tells the story of girls competing in the Miss India Pageant and those taking part in the VHP’s Durga Vahini camps. It is a tale of two Indias. In one, Ruhi Singh is a small-town girl competing in Bombay to win the Miss India pageant—a ticket to stardom in a country wild about beauty contests. In the other India, Prachi Trivedi is the young, militant leader of a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls run by Durga Vahini, where she preaches violent resistance to Western culture, Christianity, and Islam. Moving between these divergent realities, the film creates a lively, provocative portrait of the world’s largest democracy at a critical transitional moment—and of two women who hope to shape its future. The film also features former Miss India Pooja Chopra who was a near victim of female infanticide. Watch the trailer below:

The writer and the director of the film, Nisha Pahuja who is the first filmmaker to get inside a Durga Vahini camp says,

“I am thrilled to finally present the film to audiences in India!  Although we’ve had a great run with it abroad, I’ve always felt that it needs to be seen in India because it is first and foremost an Indian story.  And sharing it now is key since women’s rights has become an issue that is front and centre in the public consciousness.”

The award winning film is shot by the ace cinematographer and FTII graduate, Mrinal Desai and Derek Rogers.

Apart from the theatrical release, the film will be screened in various cities, villages, schools and colleges across the nation as a part of its ambitious nation-wide campaign. The film is being shown at the prestigious educational institutes including Symbiosis,  IIT and IIM institutes across the country. Joining the campaign are women’s rights activist and some of the incredible women featured in the film including the former beauty queen Pooja Chopra.

Awards and Accolades

The award winning film which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2012 has been screened in more than 125 film festivals across the world and has won over 19 awards including best documentary feature at the Tribeca Film Festival 2012, best Canadian Feature, 2012 Hot Docs Film FestivaL, best Foreign Film, 2012 Traverse City Film FestivaL, best Canadian Documentary, 2012 Vancouver Film Critics Circle Awards. It was recently featured in the ‘Film Forward’ program of the prestigious Sundance film festival and was part of Indiana University Cinema program where Pahuja was invited to present and speak about the film along with other speakers including Meryl Streep, Abbas Kirostami and Roger Corman.

About the director

Nisha Pahuja is a freelance filmmaker, writer, producer, and researcher who was born in India, but grew up in Toronto. Her third film, The World Before Her won the World Documentary Competition Award at Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered. Though she grew up in Toronto, this is her second film focusing on India. She makes films that deal with social and political issues and are driven by character and narrative.

For further information on the film please log onto the website.


It’s a great time for desi documentaries. In the recent past we have seen some pretty terrific ones- Malegaon Ka Superman, The World Before Her and Katiyabaaz to name just a few. Which is why it’s a pity that Nishtha Jain’s powerful documentary Gulabi Gang hasn’t quite got the audience it deserves- yet.

Perhaps the makers ought to have employed the Gulabi Gang themselves to whack our lazy, torrent-savvy audiences into theaters. 😉   The film is now running in its second week in a select few theaters/cities with ticket rates further slashed. There’s no good excuse to miss this one, really.

Anyway, here we have an interesting post by Prashant Parvatneni on Gulabi Gang and how genres usually associated with (fiction) cinema can find their way into the documentary format as well. Over to him:

Gulabi Gang by Nishtha Jain is undoubtedly a rigorous study of a women’s movement in the deep interiors of Bundelkhand where a group of women networked between several villages have formed a ‘gang’ to fight against the oppression of women and dalits. They drape themselves in Pink sarees and carry pink lathis that becomes an image of the identity that binds these women. There are complex issues that these women are dealing with and fighting. Young brides are being burnt, dalit activists murdered and certain high-caste Choudharies have concentrated all power in their hands suppressing any and every dissent using gun and muscle power. It is this nexus of power and oppression that the Gulabi Gang is trying to tear apart under their feisty leader Sampat Pal.

Sampat Pal inevitably becomes the ‘hero’ of this film, her infectious zest and fearlessness naturally grabs the attention and it’s hard not to root for her like we would for the angry underdog taking on the system in a Bollywood film. It only helps that Jain adopts a form of narrative that is simple in structure but quite inventive. It follows 2-3 cases that Gulabi Gang encounters and as it does so, quite curiously these cases turn to a kind of whodunit with the Gang acting as detectives trying to uncover the truth behind the violence inflicted on women.


Like in one of the cases, a young wife is found burnt inside the house. When Sampat reaches the spot, the in laws of the woman claim that she got burnt while making rotis but Sampat in true detective spirit, deduces that it cannot be a mere mishap. There wasn’t any stove at the spot, nor was any other part of the house burnt or even charred. Sitting in the audience even we also could start the process of knitting the clues together and deducing while also being acutely aware of entire machinery which includes the panchayat and the police trying to push this crime under the carpet. Sampat Pal’s own relative burns his wife but she wants the truth to come out. When the director’s voice asks her will you fight against your kin as well, she replies inspiringly ‘I just want to find out the truth’. Quite fittingly then, Anand Gandhi (director, Ship of Theseus) called this film a ‘reinvention of detective genre’.

This is a welcome change as the problem with most documentary films dealing with social evils, people’s movements, subaltern issues etc. is that they have sort of reached a saturation of form. While they do deal with a variety of issues, they follow the same old form – interview of key players, a bit of commentary, a bit of field action all merged seamlessly to ‘illustrate’ and ‘explain’ and thereby ‘document’ the problem. Such a form has turned even more uninteresting with its derivatives populating news channels through their ‘human stories’.

Thankfully the film doesn’t stop short of also pointing towards the limits of such genres that evidently end with a resolution a climax arrived at through carefully plotted series of events. Unlike in a detective genre film, we do not get to know whether the culprit was caught or not. Often the battles are lost and the guilty gets away. But like the truest of detective stories, the importance lies in questioning what one gets on face value rather than solving the puzzle and Gulabi Gang does point our attention towards the need to inquire and shakes up the static status quo.

Instead of a gradual convergence towards a resolution of problem, the film starts to spread in and out of such inquiries of cases and looks at the varied other forms of struggle that a people’s movement engages in – organization, activism, mobilization, planning etc. One of the most charming and equally thought provoking sequences involves the meetings and the practice sessions of the Gulabi Gang. As a ritual Gulabi Gang practices lathi fights with a playful zest as two women take on each other while others on the periphery cheer and clap. It quite casually points towards a ritual- even a ritual of violence (though more for protection in this case) that is involved in any people’s movement.

The entire movement also resembles a theatrical performance. There is backstage practice and rituals and there are costumes and props – the pink sarees and pink lathis juxtaposed against the dry, arid brown and gray landscape is an image that gives tremendous gravitas to the Gang and binds them into a community. In fact the saree and the lathi are the first things that are given to the women who join Gulabi Gang and they have to change into the ‘costume’ right away. There is a slightly comic cut in the film where we see Sampat Pal encouraging the mother of the burnt bride to fight her case and in the next shot the frail creature of the mother is draped in bright new pink saree as she is on her way to the court with the Gang. It’s a terrific reminder of how a bit of theatre and performance is a part of every movement or revolution. It also reminds us how such performativity can be appropriated for contradictory causes – for assertion of justice or for religious or political fanaticism.

Gulabi Gang ends with tragic human drama as the documentary manages to trace a character arc of sorts of one of the Gang’s members – Husna. Husna, a hardworking and passionate activist and member of Gulabi Gang takes a position completely contradictory to the movement when her own brother kills her sister for marrying out of love. When she supports him instead of condemning in the name of culture and tradition, one is hit by the extent to which such fundamental, patriarchal ideas can deride compassion and human justice and what a difficult battle Gulabi Gang is fighting – not just externally but internally. For me, the film was special because it shows how certain genres – like detective, political, social drama, human drama genres – can seep into documentary also; in-fact they come from the reality that the documentary often deals with. But, it also shows how cinema can avoid using genre as a trope and move in an out of genres to question the complexity instead of using such genre games to manipulate sentiment and to take an easy position of a sympathizer. The last sequence shows Gulabi Gang members waiting for a train on the platform and few men looking at these women clad in Pink Sarees with contemptuous humor. For them they look nothing short of fancy dress. One of the men asks the man who moves around with the Gang – ‘kuch milta hai issse’. The director shows amazing empathy here as she cuts to the image of Sampat Pal staring into the camera or perhaps into the far horizon, sitting amidst other women with eyes filled with acceptance of difficulty but shining with a rare honest hope. All the contempt of the scene just washes away and we are filled not with sentiment but with emotion – an unsaid but urgently felt hope and a desire at least to think.


(This post was originally published here.)

Internet is a great place, especially if you are looking for under-rated gems. Varun Grover stumbled upon this documentary called The World Before Her. Mihir Fadnavis got in touch with the director and we managed to watch the film. So over to Fatema Kagalwala and her ramblings on this stunning and important film. We are putting this in our “Must Watch” film recco List. Watch it.

The World Before Her copy

We love living in extremes. Grey areas aren’t appealing because they force us to think. They are meant for individual assessment whereas black and white are fit for mass consumption. So we’ve draped ourselves with stark definitions of tradition and modernity and live a bipolar existence, merrily swinging between both. Sometimes, we find solace in middle ground but one that is obfuscated with the overpowering implications of the extremes that are tradition and the modernity.

Prachi, Ruhi, Ankita, Pooja – the central protagonists, of ‘The World before Her’, a stunning, award-winning documentary by Nisha Pahuja, are all products, or shall we say victims, of our collective need to ideologically belong somewhere, even if it is within an ideology that seeks to subjugate them. They are perfect lambs for factories manufacturing daily definitions of the traditional and modern according to their convenience.

The struggle between tradition and modernity is ancient. The documentary examines these two polarities with a clear understanding of all its inherent ironies. Let’s take a look at the two worlds it straddles to make its point –

World 1 – Miss India contest 2011 20-day training camp. Of beauty, botox and bikinis.

World 2 – Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Durga Vahini Camp. Of Hindutva, weapon training and military discipline.

Nisha takes us through both the camps, laying bare their belief system, process and the little dreams behind it all. We see training procedures up-close and peek into the lives of trainees. What makes the ambitious Ms India contestants tick and what drives the fierce Durga Vahinis? Through a thoughtful juxtapositioning, the two opposite worlds collide and before we know, melt into one voice. On the face of it, both espouse contrarian views on female identity. Beyond the façade of the titles of ‘modernity’ and ‘traditionalism’, both bind the very subjects they aim to set free, victimising the very subjects they aim to empower, treating the women they are pretending to liberate as cattle to be branded. The beauty of it all is the film doesn’t state it, but makes it clear with an intuitive stitching together of the narrative.

Nisha delves into both the worlds with care, aware of the mine of uneasy answers she is exploring, mindful of the dust her questions will raise. There is no attempt to impose a comment or paint a particular ideological picture. What makes the documentary a brilliant experience is the careful expose of truths and myths we live in, and the questing female mired in it.

In Ruhi, Ankita and Pooja, we see semi-urban, middle-class young women, very well aware of their social status as females, out to beat the system even if it is through succumbing to it. They are aware of the compromises they have to make and are fine with the cost to their dignity, if it transforms them, like Pooja puts it, ‘from a person to a personality’. The irony of their entire quest for identity within a system out to objectify them, seems to be lost on them. To my mind, Pooja Chopra, the girl whose father insisted on killing her at birth because she was female, almost seems like a tragic figure, bitterly fooled by an arrogant system laughing at her for believing she had carved a separate identity of her own and on her own terms. Ruhi, a young 19 yr old, feels obliged to her parents for bringing her up and feels the need to pay them back by becoming ‘something’, so that their creation is worth it…she never questions the route to fame she has chosen. Nor are her future plans of marriage and children at an appropriate age seem to clash in anyway with her present teen plans of becoming a beauty queen. ‘I can do all this now as I am young, later I won’t be able to do all this’, she says (quote not verbatim). There is no ideology at work here nor a tussle between the old and new. It is simple conditioning speaking but Ruhi doesn’t question any of it, for her her parents support for her contest participation is an empowering, liberating sign of modernity enough. For these women, the shine of glamour and the pain of centuries of repression are too blinding to see anything under or beyond.

At the other extreme is Prachi, the alpha female trainer at Durga Vahini, who has found a purpose and outlet in Hindu fundamentalism to escape the vulnerabilities her gender status thrusts on her. She is a single child of an orthodox Hindu family who feels her father is justified in hitting her (even brutally) because as a female child he let her live. She loves the power being a Durga Vahini trainer gives her, flaunts her dislike for ‘girlie girls’, is proud of being tough and is absolutely against marriage. Like the Ms India contestants, this Aurangabad-based girl too is looking to establishing her worth as a female in all-male world, but by embracing and perpetuating the orthodox mores of Durga Vahini. Unlike the other girls though, she is fully aware that the system she advocates aims at curbing her own freedom, yet, it remains her chosen vehicle to empowerment. Yet, I wondered if there was a glint of wishful-ness, an unacknowledged longing behind the façade of derision as she watched the Ms India contest. I don’t know if it was the artfully calculated shot lingering on her tad longer or my over-wrought zeal to understand her better or an actual fact.

I read criticism of the film saying this isn’t the reality of entire India and that the film does not reflect upon the middle path. It is possible I imagined the subtle jingoism in the criticism, but that apart, what it missed was the fact that these two extremities inform the lives of every woman (and men too) traversing the so-called middle path. Maybe they exist but I am yet to meet a person truly liberated from gender complexities and its socio-economic implications that the film so starkly defines. In fact, I saw Prachi, Ruhi, Ankita and Pooja as sharp and accurate spokespeople of the entire India, irrespective of class distinctions. Trapped in the half-baked definitions made by a commerce-driven, power-hungry, alpha male world, they languish confused in the debris of the shattered female identity they struggle to resurrect. Just like you and me.

As I mull over the needs of these girls, (and they are very familiar, they are around me and inside me) I see their quest with compassion. They have little choice other than adhering to a corrupt system to beat another equally corrupt one, to gain whatever semblance of self-respect they can garner for themselves. Patriarchy hasn’t left much for women to call their own or celebrate in the truest sense, has it? And if that wasn’t enough we have religious fundamentalism adding to the fire. Nisha doesn’t shy from showing news clips of Hindu fundamentalists beating up women in pubs and iterating the fact that Hindu terrorism is a bigger threat to India than Islamic fundamentalism. Not only is this a well-informed, deeply introspective, objective, exploratory documentary but it is very brave as well. One simply wishes the film does not get targeted by pressure groups if and when it comes to India.

As I watched the documentary and later, I wasn’t surprised by the ironical truths about female existence staring at me. It was all seen before, read before, said before. Yet, I couldn’t define the film in words and that is not because of the complexity of the film but of its theme. Which at one level is almost self-explanatory, but dig deeper and it will leave you distraught at the number of knots or rather untied ends it waves at you.

Why have we made the question of women’s identity so complex, almost impossible to unravel? Is it because we fear if we find the answers the world around us will no longer be recognisable? We are all slaves to gender equations and roles. Breaking free is scary because it means starting from scratch for human existence. Without the context of male and female roles and boundaries where would we be? What would we adhere to and what would we fight? Coz isn’t that exactly what gives all of us our purpose? The ‘shoulds’ our gender is supposed to wear? We either wear them with pride or fight them with gusto, satisfied in the purpose we’ve found to base our lives on. We then spend our entire lives empowering the very cycle the protagonists of this film believe/imagine they are fighting. We are no different from them, really. Gender politics apart, men and women, we are all in this together and for once, it isn’t a happy thought.

I realise I can go on writing about this film, such is the subject matter and beauty with which the story has been told. As I pull down the windows on my brains because I really want you to watch it with a fresh curiosity, let me leave u with a few moments that struck me with their irony, pathos and horror.

Pageant diction coach Sabira Merchant (proudly or matter-of-factly?) calling the Ms India training camp “a little factory … where you’re polished like a diamond. The modern Indian woman.” (Did the irony of what she was saying escape her or had she, like the contestants, made peace with it long back?)

Uma Bharti, while protesting against the 1996 Ms World contest to be held in India, “We are against a system that presents women as pieces of meat and judges them based on the size of their chest, waist and hips.” (I never thought I’d appreciate Uma Bharti in this lifetime.)

Prachi, with misty eyes, excusing her father for hitting her, “Knowing that I’m a girl child, he let me live … That’s the best part. In a traditional family, people don’t let a girl child live. They kill the child.” (I don’t think there was anyone among us who didn’t shiver on hearing her say this and actually mean it.)

The Miss India contestants parading in hip-length sacks and denim shorts in a round that judges who has the hottest legs.

Marc Robinson, the organiser, laughing off the indignity of the sack-round.

News clips of Hindutva louts beating up women in pubs.

Little girls at Durga Vahini camps being taught India and Hindutva was under threat from two main sources – Islam and Christianity.

Little girls lapping it up and regurgitating it like it was the only truth.

Chinmayee, a smart 14-yr old, proudly declaring at the end of the camp, ‘No, I don’t have a single Muslim friend. I did when I was younger but then I didn’t know that we are different.’ I didn’t know if I felt horror for India or pity for the little girl.

At the end of the Durga Vahini camp, girls getting sashes to wear identifying them as Durga Vahinis and the (gleeful?) exclamations of, ‘This is just like Miss India, Miss World!’


Fatema Kagalwala

– FB page is here.

– If you are in Canada or USA, you can order it here and here.