There is a young girl, Chinmayee, in Nisha Pahuja’s `The World Before Her‘, who speaks (both in english and hindi) with utmost clarity and a twinkle in her eyes. She oozes confidence, her language reflects her conviction. I watched her in awe as she talked, not bothered in the least by the camera, at an age when I could barely manage to utter my name on camera without stuttering. However after a moment as I start paying attention to what she is saying, I realize how deep and how early the seeds of prejudice are sown. Chinmayee explains how she had a couple of muslim friends while growing up but now she knows better. She asserts the need to preserve our cultural heritage (from muslims and christians). A culture that apparently needs to be restored and preserved by teaching kids stories of destruction and a narrative of violence rather than hope and love.
In a rare glimpse of Durga Vahini camps, we see young girls being trained in self-defense and going through general physical training. They are taught that being coy and looking pretty is NOT the definition of femininity. Most of them appear happy and condent. So far so good. At one point, we see one of the senior members telling the girls to perform well (in handling guns – which is disturbing independent of any other aspect of the film) unless they want to work only in the kitchen all their lives. This is juxtaposed with a speech given by a senior `pracharika’ who tells the girls to shun education, not to dream of a career, marry early etc. The clip ends with her telling the girls that though the constitution of India guarantees us (the women) equal rights, where will you hide your natural physical weakness? The idea of woman as a homemaker is both looked down upon and revered. This resonates with what we see around us today. A modern Indian woman must be educated but should find a man who holds more degrees (or a degree that is equally or more respectable), a woman must earn but definitely not more than her husband, also she must know how to maintain a house etc., she is free to choose but only within a sphere defined by others. Clearly neither education/career nor physical training leads to empowerment. What is needed is to build a culture that recognizes and values diverse forms of knowledge, including women’s knowledge. Such societies should find no reason to differentiate between what we call a “working woman” and a homemaker. It is essential, for emancipation of any downtrodden group/community in the society, that their domains of knowledge (which almost always serves as the primary source of their survival and livelihood) be respected and recognized. Only then can formal education and other ways of empowerment be effective. In some parts, it seems, that the film wanted to show how the girls at Durga Vahini are being sold the virtues of life of domesticity and repression. The girls, on the other hand, seem infused with energy and charged with confidence, albeit for all the wrong reasons. It is clear that the main aim of these camps is to fuel communal hatred and prepare these girls to justify, and if need be, indulge in violence against anyone who is “different”. This “different” category, as we know, includes anyone who doesn’t toe the Hindutva line but the worst of their wrath is directed towards muslims. It is heartbreaking to see these young girls talking with pride about possibilities of indulging in what can only be called as, in parlance of our times, terrorist activities much like Sadhvi Pragya of the Malegaon blasts fame. One of the scariest clips from the film is that of Durga Vahini trainess on their “graduation day” – walking on roads (of Aurangabad?), shouting slogans and spewing venom against other religious communities. An old man with a kind face and long grey beard looks on. In view of recent elections and the debate that it generated, it is not altogether odd to see this. The hindu right-wing finds its most staunch and coldly rational supporters in the middle class. What is disturbing to see is – how young they catch their foot-soldiers and how well-structured is their method of imbibing these young minds with hatred.
But I digress. The focus of the film is on women. The other part of the film is about nineteen miss India aspirants and the beauty industry that survives by turning young women into “beautiful bodies”. The cosmetic surgeons work passionately to change the personal histories of these bodies. They are cajoled into making small alterations to make them look more symmetric. They go through a series of procedures including skin lightening to make themselves fit for the market. This is the brutal face of capitalism where conformity and insecurity is sold in the name of modernity.