RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
The World Before Her
Director: Nisha Pahuja
Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, third documentary,[I] which, deservedly, won the Tribeca Film Festival 2012 Best Documentary Feature prize and Best Canadian Feature Documentary 2012 at Hot Docs, uncovers the tense, complex, misogynistic social strictures which surround women in India today.
This is an important film to see, not only for its highlighting of the troubles women in India face but for the film’s ability to convey the confusing and conflicting feelings that fuel bigotry, experienced by both victim and perpetrator. It belongs in the public dialogue about human right’s violations.The World Before Her offers a perspective on how societies, in general, function around fears.
In The World Before Her women both fight against misogyny and unconsciously absorb its message. The film is simple. Pahuja doesn’t supply a lot of political or religious facts. She lets the film form around what her subjects say and what they do. On the surface, The World Before Herfollows, over two years, two groups of young women – Miss India beauty pageant contestants and Durgha Vahini Hindu fundamentalists. The contestants, in their late teens and 20s, are in a contest that conforms to American and European ideals of beauty (thinness, whiteness), and want an India more aligned with an idealized West. They see their participation in Miss India, despite its sexism (which at least one contestant comments on), as part of current Indian modernization that will have to reform the subordination of women. The Durgha Vahini, in their early teens to late 20s, are members of the female branch of the arch conservative Hindu movement, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has swelled in the last few decades with fundamentalism’s popularity. They are in direct opposition to this move toward non-Indian customs and are afraid of India’s dilution by the West and by Islam and Christianity. The VHP and their Durgha Vahini subsidiary view Hinduism as India’s only true religion and their goal is to protect it. Violence is an important part of that and the girls are trained in self-defense and the use of weapons. At its simplest, the film matches one group’s standardizing of how “their” women dress, perform, and think against the other - the pageant “boot camp” where contestants are taught how to act like beauty queens and the training camp where the girls learn to kill, march, and recite slogans. The two groups could be said to mirror the push of consumerism and fundamentalism in India today - both on the rise since the early 1990s when India suddenly was opened to the global world after the lifting of isolation laws, (which had kept out much foreign influence), allowing in businesses such as Rupert Murdoch’s satellite Sky TV. The film traces the progress of contestants, Ruhi and Ankita, and Durgha Vahini youth leader, Prachi, and uses the devices of talking heads, interviews with an off screen interviewer, and episodes to tell their stories.
The film’s simple structure holds very disruptive and complicated information. Part of the complexity with which Pahuja deals is that of the ignorance of a non-Indian audience about India’s subtle social relationships and their modern shifts. In a film like this, so much material is so deeply cultural that it does not translate easily. It is hard for an outsider to fathom India’s social norms and it is even harder, thus, to understand the intense statements made by the women and men in The World Before Her, remarks and observations that show a psychological conflict so deep it seems to have no articulate expression. This includes Prachi’s father’s extreme violence towards her for not conforming to his will (he says that hitting her hard is the only thing that makes her hear him) especially his insistence that she marry (which she refuses to do). He comfortably talks about this while his wife and daughter listen matter-of-factly. It all seems strangely normal. More surprising are Ruhi’s and Prachi’s tearful thanks and sense of obligation to their parents for not aborting them. Female infanticide is a reality in their lives. India has weak inheritance rights for women, bankrupting dowry customs and views of women as inferior and this promotes femicide. It’s not legal but it is semi acceptable and some 750,000 females are terminated a year. One contestant’s mother left her husband while she was pregnant so that she could keep her daughter, as he had wanted to abort a female fetus.
But the documentary is also about more than Indian life. The rock bottom prejudice in India’s patriarchy is very disturbing but the film conveys much about prejudice towards women in general. When I saw the film during a 9 AM press screening, it seemed obvious that it would win the festival’s prize, less because of the film’s merits (which are numerous) than from the audience reaction. People can laugh in a film with a sexual theme or even one about abuse of women but, in this screening, the audience grew so silent it was almost palpable, as if we were all increasingly stunned. The intensity of this silence suggested that the film, and its message, overwhelmed us.
The film’s women are very clear about their fears and ambitions, about knowing what they want to get away from or what they want to be but they contend with intricate contradictions that are different than those experienced by (to use a broad term) Westerners. Pahuja includes footage showing young women attacked in the street for their manners of dress, for drinking in a bar or walking with a man. Many women identify with these kind of incidents. These prejudices are everywhere. The recent Slut Walk controversy in the United States about what a woman ‘should’ wear to prevent getting raped is an example. But watching a film like this, connections like that become tangential. It’s hard not to become aware of how deeply coded in India these cultural problems are but, equally, it’s impossible to disengage from the film’s reality. This is a very unusual mix.
Perhaps the most obvious cultural difference in The World Before Her is in the parent-child relationships. Pahuja contextualizes the women through their parents. Some are very loving and supportive of their daughters’ ambitions and others are not. But, the Indian family relationship is bonded tightly and, as Pahuja explained in interview, Indian culture is steeped in a profound, virtually unimpeachable, respect for elders, especially men. This deference muddies a woman’s detachment from misogyny and muddies her ability to confront it. Though the women, of both groups, confront these conventions and are sure of themselves doing it, they seem also, impossibly, to be trapped in their predicaments. The internal contradictions that they deal with are more than polar - they are entwined - and these psychic conflicts touch every level of their daily world. It defines their lives. The film’s last words are spoken by the now 24 year old Prachi when she admits that the traditional system lets her down. She seems to undo all that she is fighting for when she accepts that her adherence to fundamentalist ideals, no matter how militaristically promoted, keep her in the social position from which she is fighting to free herself. It was as if she returned to a fatalistic hopelessness that seems inset in her impasse in her culture.
Pahuja manages to show that this incomprehensibly intricate world is so internalized by its citizens, and especially its women, that it is like ink blurred into water. But the audience’s deep involvement with the film and its people who were caught in something both blunt and elusive is due to Pahuja’s skill. She exposes some of the layers of complications, strengths and fears with which Indian women struggle but which also shakes any viewer into some recognition of their own society’s bigotry.
[I] “Nisha Pajura started off as a researcher for some of Canada’s brightest documentary talents and learned filmmaking under their mentorship. She co-wrote and directed Diamond Road, a three part series on the global diamond trade for ZDF/Arte, TVO, Discovery Times and History Television. Shot all over the world, Diamond Road received the 2008 Gemini award for best documentary series. The feature version of Diamond Road premiered at IDFA in 2007 and was one of three films selected as part of the prestigious OXFAM-Novib evenings. Pahuja’s Bollywood Bound, about a quartet of Indo-Canadians who travel to India to make it big in Bollywood, screened at numerous film festivals and was widely telecast around the world. It was the closing night film at Hot Docs 2001 and was nominated for a Gemini in 2002. The World Before Her is her third film.”
Biographic notes from WWW.GAT.CA/MEDIA
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