I recently signed up for Netflix to watch the documentary The World Before Her. The film follows two distinct ‘boot camps’ in India which at first glance may as well be taking place on two seperate planets. On one hand we watch twenty beauty contestants speaking flawless English and wearing western clothing training to compete for Miss India. On the other hand, we follow Prachi Trivedi, a fierce Hindu Nationalist who runs a boot camp teaching indoctrination and violence, her movement is informally dubbed the Hindu Taliban. Since one of my best friend’s recommended it, I expected to enjoy it, but I didn’t expect it to crack my heart in two.
You start the film seeing how different the two worlds portrayed are: women hitting catwalks and wearing red lipstick in one, and then women aiming guns and army crawling on dusty dirt floors in the other. And yet, as you watch the film you see that while they are truly very different worlds and perspectives on life in India, they share one painful thing in common: All the women are bound in by the patriarchal society in which they are raised.
I watched 19 year olds getting botox, shuddering from burning skin lightening treatments, and then I stared stunned when they, instructed by a male judge, catwalked down a shoddy outdoor runway with sacks over their heads so the judge could look at their legs without the bother of their identities. These girls are used to being objectified but this was painful for even them though they did it just the same. The saddest part was how aware most of these women were at their objectification, and the knowledge that they were banking everything on their beauty, a commodity that fades. And yet, some of the women argued that in a culture that weeps at the birth of a girl, it is in the beauty pageant arena that womanhood is celebrated and where they had opportunities. One contestant shared how her mother was given two choices when she was born a) dump her in an orphanage b) kill her. Her mother did neither and was thus abandoned by her husband and his family. Now that she is a well known beauty queen, she hopes her mother sees she made the right choice.
But while I wasn’t surprised to feel sympathy for the beauty contestants, I was taken aback by the sympathy I felt for Prachi. Prachi, who began attending boot camps at three, who hates Ghandi and dreams of violence, and who were she to meet me, would want to wipe me off the face of the earth, of all the girls, it was Prachi who broke my heart most. While her training sessions are disturbing, the scenes where and her dad chat and smile about the abuse she suffers at his hands is horrific. Her dad refers to lighting an iron rod and hitting her with the casualness of discussing what he ate for breakfast that morning. When asked about it Prachi shrugs off the abuse. She is not upset about the beatings, she’s glad he lets her live. I am a girl-child and he didn’t kill me when I was born. He could have. But he didn’t. He gave me everything because he let me live. The sincere smiling way she says this- it hurts. And while the last thing she wants to do is marry and have children, she accepts that she will have to do so, and that the movement she is fighting to defend is the movement that is tying her down. She’s intelligent enough to understand this dichotomy and yet she feels chained to this life. She has known nothing else.
To be clear this isn’t an issue limited to India specifically or South Asia generally. Gender inequality is a problem that spans the globe and exists in our own backyards too. As a report by the United Nations concluded, no society treats its women as well as its men. The girls in the film, Ankita, Pooja, and even Prachi, are deeply intelligent women. It’s difficult to watch and know how high they could soar were their wings not clipped, their fates effectively sealed. I’ve been fortunate, more fortunate than many I know, but this documentary reminded me that while it is my luxury to not be affected by this reality, it is my duty not to forget.
I’m also heartened that people like Nisha Pahuja, the director of this film, are taking on the responsibility of sharing our stories and speaking our truths. Whatever our race, faith, or gender, we must own our stories, expose our truths and talk about what hurts. Yes, looking beyond the beautiful bangles and benarsee saris can be uncomfortable, but covering up the wounds only makes them fester. It’s only through open dialogue that we can heal. The filmmakers are doing a kickstarter campaign to bring the documentary to India. It’s a risky venture but an important one, to take the film to the place it was created and to hopefully inspire change.