• Debanjan Kar

Movie Review - The World Before Her

Trigger Warnings- mention of violence, mention of religious extremism, mention of religious intolerance.

“The World Before Her” is a 2012 documentary written and directed by Nisha Pahuja. It follows the lives of two young women: Ruhi Singh, a 20-year-old Jaipur native, participating in Miss India beauty pageant, trying to ‘modernize’ India; and on the other side of the spectrum, we have Prachi Trivedi, a 20-year-old Aurangabad native and a Hindu Nationalist who trains thousands of young Hindu girls in camps run by Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the largest Hindu nationalist group.

The World Before Her showcases the struggle of Ruhi Singh and several other girls participating in Miss India 2011. Ruhi’s mother talks about the difficulties she had to live through because Ruhi’s father did not want a girl child and wanted to give the girl up. Ruhi’s mother separated from her husband because she did not agree to give Ruhi up.

The Miss India beauty pageant is a shining example of how a beauty standard is set, and pressure is put on the girls to live up to that standard.

In one of the clips, Botox is being injected into the girls’ faces to bring symmetry to it, and one participant is skeptical and uncomfortable with injecting Botox into her chin, but the doctor and the Miss India team kept persuading her till she agreed to inject Botox. In another clip, the participants are being interviewed as they are preparing for the swimwear round. One participant expressed that she is not comfortable walking the ramp in a swimsuit and that she is doing it only for the sake of the competition. This shows the pressure these participants are under to live up to the standards of the competition, even when the demands of the competition are outside the participant’s comfort zone.

The documentary also follows the life of Prachi Trivedi, who trains young Hindu girls at the Durga Vahini training camp. The first clip at the Durga Vahini camp shows Prachi training young girls for freehand combat, and then it cuts to a woman giving a speech to the young girls at the camp. The woman giving the speech explains how models like Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, walking around in “skimpy” clothes are responsible for India’s economic downfall because they endorse foreign brands. We see another woman give a speech about how girls should be married off by the age of 18 because, by 25, girls become so mature that they cannot be “tamed”. Then, we see Prachi’s father talk about his daughter’s marriage. He says that she will have to get married regardless of what she wants. Prachi’s father says that he hit his daughter for the tiniest of mistakes, and Prachi said he can do so because he let her live. Prachi’s father strongly opposes beauty pageants and women wearing short clothes because, according to him, it is against women’s morals. We also see Prachi’s father give a speech to the girls, which he starts by saying that Muslims and Christians are against Hindus and that Muslims look like demons with their long beards and cap. A girl attending the camp talks about how she has been taught to use a gun at the camp and about how she will kill for her religion and values. She also says that she is proud of not having any Muslim friends because she was taught at the Durga Vahini camp that Muslims are against Hindus.

Bollywood actress and writer, Kalki Koechlin, termed the documentary as “beautiful” and “moving”, and I partly agree with her comment on the documentary. For me, it was moving but not beautiful. The cinematography and direction were beautifully done, but the documentary showed the ugly side of several issues. Being a young male adult from India, the documentary opened my eyes to a lot of thoughts and ideas I had never put my mind to.

From the documentary, these three things stuck out the most to me –

· The beauty standards presented to women in beauty pageants.

· The hatred is shown towards other religions in Hindu nationalist groups.

· The concept of an “ideal” Hindu woman.

In the Miss India beauty pageant 2011, the participants are asked to be ‘as revealing as possible. The participants are also made to work out and take Botox to achieve the “ideal” beauty fit for the Miss India title. In my opinion, this creates an inferiority complex in the minds of the participants and among women who are not able to achieve this ideal beauty set by these beauty pageants. These beauty pageants must realise that setting these unrealistic beauty standards is wrong, and everyone should be termed as equally beautiful regardless of how they look.

Next, I would like to move on to the hatred towards other religions shown in camps like the Durga Vahini. Firstpost wrote, “Durga Vahini is the female counterpart of the Bajrang Dal, a subsidiary of the Hindu nationalist organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). If you think you know about this extremist group from media coverage, that’s not the half of it”. Bajrang Dal is notorious for being a fierce Hindu extremist group. Durga Vahini with its thoughts and ideas of a Hindu-dominated society is on par with Bajrang Dal. What shocks me the most is that young, school-going girls are being used to spread this extremist mentality. What is being done at these camps is extremely wrong because ideas like these put the future of the nation at stake.

Lastly, I would like to mention the idea of an “ideal Hindu woman” being presented to these young girls at camps like the Durga Vahini. The “ideal” Hindu woman, according to the Durga Vahini, should get married by the age of 18, should know how to cook, and look after the family because women are “blessed” with the ability to carry children, and it is their responsibility to do so. This idea is deeply flawed, as women even as young as 18 should have the right to choose what paths they want to walk down in their lives and whether they want to get married.

The World Before Her gives a classic example of a “Westernised” vs “Nationalist” mindset. It shows us two sets of people who think that they are right in their thinking but, in the bigger picture, both sets of ideas are deeply flawed.

About the author: Debanjan Kar is a first-year law student pursuing BBA LLB from Jindal Global Law School.

Cover image: Source

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