Women in Hinduism, looks lyk all in one

Up in arms: Prachi Trivedi a Durga Vahini activist in The World Before Her

Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her, slotted for a 25 April release by PVR, will now hit cinemas only in June. The delay is a pity, because the film helps lay out the choices before Indian women, in ways that no party has articulated, but that form our everyday political matrix. Some would say, correctly, that Pahuja maps two extremes, and that most women stand somewhere in the middle. But TWBH presents the poles through real, believable, often conflicted characters, making their worlds come alive.

On one side is Prachi Trivedi, 24, a sturdy Durga Vahini activist whom we first see twirling a baton. Prachi’s opening voiceover is both a warning and a plea: “Egyptians, Romans, they are history now. It’s going to happen with us. So we are trying to save ourselves… Our country is becoming modern. But our past is our roots. We cannot forget our roots.” The other side is represented by Ruhi Singh, 19, a Jaipur girl with her heart set on the Miss India crown. “A lot of people think that if you let women get modern and educated, you’ll lose your culture…” says Ruhi. “But I don’t agree. As much as I love and respect my culture … I want freedom.”

The Durga Vahini (DV) is the women’s youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Pahuja says she is the first filmmaker to be allowed into a DV camp. We watch as Malaben Rawal, DV’s national president, ties Aishwarya Rai, Miss World, skimpy clothes and Lux sabun into a scathing narrative about Westernisation and videshi corporations. We see young girls pushed to their physical limits by the camp’s shaaririk module; we see them go from giggly to exhilarated by learning to fire a gun; we watch them shout slogans in defense of the Hindu rashtra, against imaginary Muslim and Christian enemies. Earlier, Prachi’s father Hemant Trivedi literally demonises these communities, inserting them into a tweaked Hindu iconography: “Muslims with their beard and caps even look like rakshasas, don’t they? And Christians, they come with their hands folded, like Pootana (a demoness). But like Pootana, the milk they offer is poisoned.”

Meanwhile, at the Miss India pageant preparations, another kind of remaking is in full swing. A female trainer teaches young women to catwalk: “Chin parallel, elbows front, back straight. It hurts? It looks fab.” A cosmetic physician blandly urges a chin extension surgery because the “three parts of the face” need to be “equal”. The men are even more brazen about the fact that they’re making and packaging a product. One Bombay Times photo-op has the aspirants line up in uniform: tight blue jeans and a thin white t-shirt, which a man rips and re-ties to reveal maximum bosom. Another time, they parade with faces veiled so that the pageant director can rate their legs without distraction.

At first, Prachi seems to speak for the old world, where women have no agency, and Ruhi for the new, where we are ostensibly free. But it quickly becomes clear that both these worlds are responses to modernity. The battle, as always, is being fought on the bodies of women — and our freedom is as elusive on either side.

Each side feels like a factory, where women are sought to be shaped into pre-given forms — forms of use to militant religious nationalism, or forms that might enter themselves smoothly into the capitalist commodity machine. But Pahuja’s painstaking interviews reveal that the factories do not only spit out the well-oiled clones they might want. Ankita Shorey wins third place in the Miss India pageant, but she knows that “achieving her dreams” comes at the cost of objectification. Prachi remains terrifyingly loyal to the Hindutva vision — even as she recognises that the ideology she wishes to make a career of declares that women should not have careers.

The rhetoric throws up constant contradictions. Amid all the enforced thrusting-out of butts and boobs, it isn’t too persuasive to hear ex-Miss India Pooja Malhotra insist that the pageant isn’t only about “external beauty”. The DV atmosphere is one of near-machismo: when a girl fumbles over a gun, the teacher jeers: “Are you planning to chop onions all your life?” Yet marriage is a woman’s only future: one DV leader mocks male-female equality even as she proclaims that girls must be married by 18, because by 25 they would be “too mature to control”.

Pahuja’s talent for juxtaposition gives the film great texture. The DV girls giggling over their saffron sashes as being Miss-India-like; the uniformity of the beauty pageant eerily echoing DV’s drills; both Ruhi and Prachi calling themselves ‘products’ that must fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The film’s juxtapositions reach their acme with female foeticide — and it is also here that any equivalence between the film’s two worlds must be abandoned. We learn that Pooja Malhotra’s mother walked out of her marriage to keep her baby daughter alive. Soon after, Prachi tells us that she cannot really be angry with her father for curtailing her ambitions, because after all, he let her live. Malhotra’s love of her mother is stronger for knowing the battles she fought, but she does not carry around the burden of perpetual gratitude. But if Prachi’s world were to be our future, all women would be forever beholden to men — for their very lives. Crushed under such a weight, what other battles could we possibly hope to fight?

Source: The Hindu Businessline