I saw Nisha Pahuja’s critically acclaimed documentary “The World before Her” on Netflix. It is about to release in India this week. It is a powerful and compelling portrait of two extreme opposite ways of life of some women in India. This is a story of two women, who seek identity and direction, in our fast changing yet deeply traditional and patriarchal country. One (Ruhi) is a Miss India pageant contestant, and the other (Prachi), is an aspiring leader and trainer at Durga Vahini – A religious boot camp for girls by the RSS women’s wing.
Remember, it is a portrait of extremes, and it completely leaves out the large and fast growing section that consists of women who choose education as the vehicle for empowerment, who work in various fields and strive for success, and find a better life. It is not exactly a representative sample of what choices women have in India, and provides insufficient context to a viewer of another country and culture who is not familiar with India’s diverse fabric.
But even then, many of us, women who grew up in or into the middle class can still relate to the stories of Ruhi and Prachi to a great extent. And that is why it hits us hard. Both are shown in an honest and candid light. Their journey will make one sad, but their spirit will make one hopeful at the same time.
I will not elaborate further on Ruhi and Prachi, and will let you make your own judgement as you see and hear about their contrast lives.
But, my heart goes out to the bright young teenage student interviewed at the Durga Vahini camp. She is feisty, intelligent and articulate. She displays amazing confidence and optimism for the future. It is a shame that she learns hate, intolerance and regressive ideas from her teachers who vehemently preach that women should not be educated, and should be married off at the age of 18, otherwise it is hard to ‘tame’ them.
The archaic beliefs from an oppressive era hammered into young impressionable minds are cringe worthy, and disturbing, but not unfamiliar. Ironically, at the same time they are also taught self defense and the camp seems to inculcate discipline, confidence and self esteem – key factors for women’s empowerment.
My heart also went out to the girls in the beauty pageant. They are thinking young women, articulate, confident and ambitious, looking for a future of success, achievement and self worth. Who, at the end are merely reduced to being commodities and paraded like objects so their physical attributes can be measured for commercial utility.
Despite the dichotomy of the two worlds, ironically, it is as if the societal forces collude against reason, and in the battle of oppressive tradition and pseudo-modernism it is the women who lose. It is 2014 and counting…
It is a must see film. Don’t miss it.