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The World Before Her

Beauty and the beast

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THE EQUALIZER: The stories of Pooja and Prachi, the two stories in the film, changed the course of the documentary

A new documentary contrasts bikini-clad Miss India contestants with gun-toting Durga Vahini trainees in an attempt to understand what kind of freedom women are fighting for.

Bikini-clad Miss India hopefuls and girls in salwar kameez training to handle guns in the name of Hindutva are unlikely to have anything in common other than their nationality. In all likelihood, they are going to squirm at being compared;the existence of one, after all, is based on the exclusion of the other.

But Toronto-based filmmaker Nisha Pahuja has put them together in a film, The World Before Her, which was screened at the recent digital film festival at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. It is not meant to shock but to explore the identity of the modern Indian woman, which is not a homogenous whole but made up of several parts. She is a bit of the business honcho who leads from the front in the banking industry, a bit of the star who commands price and respect in Bollywood, and part the helpless one who gets harassed on the streets.

"Initially, the film was supposed to be a sociological look at the country going through change, " says Pahuja who moved to Mumbai while filming. "In 1999, on my first trip to India, I was invited to attend a reception in Mumbai to celebrate Miss India Yukta Mookhey winning the Miss World title in London. Having grown up in the West where beauty pageants were passê, I found this homecoming moving. I decided to look at changing India through the Miss India pageant, " she says.

Her research on the pageant and the opposition to it led her to the camp of Durga Vahini, the women's wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. She decided to juxtapose the two extreme identities of women in post-liberalised India. "History has shown repeatedly that freedom has to be fought for, and so women are fighting, " she says. "For many contestants, winning the Miss India pageant was beyond fame and money. It was about freedom - freedom from the narrow geography of being a woman. "
Pahuja feels that in allowing the co-existence of two competing ideologies of capitalism and fundamentalism, India holds a mirror to the world. "It is interesting to see how the rise of capitalism has been concomitant with the rise of fundamentalism in the world. " That's why looking at two seemingly disparate worlds in the same society is an interesting pointer to how these ideologies affect women within the same boundaries. "Both beauty pageant and fundamentalist camps refer to factories, after all. Both are patriarchal, using bodies of women to create an identity of India, " she says.

She began the film in 2008 and two stories she encountered - Miss India contestant Pooja and Durga Vahini youth leader Prachi - changed the course of her film. "Pooja told me that her mother had walked out of her marriage as she was the second girl child and her father had wanted to kill her or give her to an orphanage. Pooja was in the contest to make her mother proud, " says Pahuja.

Prachi, on the other hand, led the filmmaker into the highly-guarded Durga Vahini camp. "Getting inside the camp took two years. I didn't frighten them with my camera at the outset. I did it patiently, eventually gaining their confidence to do a detailed report, " she says. In her next film too she is exploring the theme at the global scale.

Her one-and-a-half-hour film has got numerous awards since its release last year, including Best Documentary Feature at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and Best Canadian Feature at the Hot Docs Film Festival. "It has received great reviews abroad but I hope it gets a theatrical release in India, " says Pahuja.

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