What happens when some selected or filtered minutiae of a person’s life—a person just a few years younger or older than you, who lives in today’s India like you, and who is of the same gender as you—come alive on the big, all-encompassing cinema screen? The reward of watching such non-fiction on the big screen, or the magnification of unspoken intimacy and shared history, is a discomfiting thrill. That’s the response Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her extracted from me. In the best tradition of American documentary film-making, which allows subjects to speak for themselves and the viewer to absorb what she or he wants, Pahuja’s film about Ruhi, a beauty-contest aspirant from a middle-class family in Jaipur and Prachi, an opponent of that aspiration, is not as much an eye-opener as it is an example of clever, narrative non-fiction.

Prachi is an instructor at Durga Vahini

The outrage of the documentarian is quiet. What she makes us see and hear is deserving of outrage, of course: teenage beauty-pageant contestants undergoing Botox pricks under their lips or covered from head to torso and made to walk on a beachside ramp just so their legs can be judged: the chilling patriarchal bombast of Prachi’s father, who wants her to be a wife and mother to be complete; who hits physically to teach her lessons in his brand of truth and discipline; the revelation that Miss India 2009 escaped female infanticide because of her mother’s will. We never see and barely hear the film-maker in the course of the film, except for some softly voiced, pointed questions.

The film-maker’s access to the lives of both women is a feat. As it is with journalism, what she finally does with that access is partly in the realm of ethics. The lack of overt editorializing and absence of voices and opinions from outside the worlds Ruhi, Prachi and their friends, competitors, sisters and families inhabit, lend the film a false neutrality. False, because Pahuja knows her position on the Durga Vahini and the Miss India Contest—both disturb her deeply.

Are Prachi and Ruhi more alike than they are different then? Yes, they are.

We see Ruhi’s parents watching their daughter in the televised Miss India contest in their sparse bedroom. We see Prachi and her parents watching the same contest with disgust. We get glimpses of the minds of small girls at a Durga Vahini camp, cosying up to the militant Hindu rhetoric. We see Prachi snap, just short of tears, in extreme close-ups.

Pahuja possibly retained what she got from her subjects towards the end, after a period of acclimatizing them to the camera and her. Her editor David Kazala has pieced the parallel stories together superbly, shaping a narrative that builds up block by block to the happily ambivalent climax. Towards the end, the film almost becomes entertaining.

It is obvious Pahuja is slightly more embracing of the aspiring beauty queens than she is of the Durgas. There is more backstory to Ruhi. She approaches the dolled-up girls with humour—there’s even a hint of black humour in the question-answer round of the contest—and sympathy.

But even when we see Prachi at her home, seemingly comfortable in front of Pahuja’s camera, being herself, she is the film’s striking Other. We know nothing about the very young girls we meet at Prachi’s gruelling physical training labs. Why, despite all the work, are they full of happy smiles? Like Ruhi’s Miss India contest, is a Durga Vahini camp their escape? Has that escape also trapped them? Pahuja does not quite get comfortable with their fractured and colonized minds.

For the viewer, that distance is liberating. When Prachi says she hates Mahatma Gandhi, that she can kill if the Parishad needs her to, or when she justifies her father’s beatings by saying that at least he gave her life and did not kill her when she was born, or when adolescent girls chant, “Ask for milk and we’ll give you rice pudding, ask for Kashmir and we’ll slit your throats", all you do as a viewer is absorb. And keep love, hate or moralizing for later.

The World Before Her Eyes releases in theatres on Friday.

Close
×
My Reads Logout