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The World Before Her review: An important, provocative film

Durga Vahini is the female counterpart of the Bajrang Dal, a subsidiary of the Hindu nationalist organisationVishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). If you think you know about this extremist group from media coverage, that’s not the half of it. A young Indian girl at a militant training camp proclaims, "We have learned to use guns and we'll use them if we have to. We will kill people if we need to". Another young child, attending the camp for the first time, is seen wearing jeans, a rebellious attitude and a mischievous grin. After ten days at Durga Vahini, she is ready to kill for her country. Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her chronicles the inner workings of Durga Vahini to stunning effect. Four years in the making and extensively researched, Pahuja’s crew was the first to be allowed inside the camp. The cameras follow the lives of Prachi, a twenty-year-old trainer at Durga Vahini, and a number of Miss India (2011) contestants.

The film then goes back and forth between the camp and India’s fashion industry – two worlds that contrast, and surprisingly, even draw parallels at times. It’s a classic ‘nationalist’ point of view versus the ‘Westernised’. But what stands out is that the film is never judgmental about any of the practices or the characters in either world. Prachi has no qualms about killing Gandhi or people of other religions who attack Hinduism, and manages to terrorise even her fellow Durga Vahini members. Pahuja somehow manages to create empathy for Prachi, who is really just a victim of a long-standing social campaign to brainwash women for political mileage. For all their collective bravado, Prachi and the beauty pageant contestants emerge as distinct and formidable personalities, who seem to be undergoing a personal transformation as the camera rolls. The film includes some seriously disturbing video clips of the camp as well as some unsettling behind-the-scenes expose of the modeling industry. 

The flood of images will be mostly new to Indian audiences, including copious scenes from the camp’s ‘classrooms’. Pahuja smoothly establishes the contrast between impassioned idealism and the cynical machinery of the state. Prachi’s father is cheerfully antagonistic and is very open about teaching kids about the ‘bad guys’ of the country – Christians and Muslims. But the most revealing moments come from the candid conversations with the protagonists. When asked if the camp is a terrorist factory, Prachi casually replies that they don’t have AK-47 rifles so it can’t possibly be a terrorist camp. Amazingly, the film is quite entertaining. The music is pretty catchy and the film at most times is a really dark comedy, albeit a hard-hitting one. Somewhat unconvincing is the mild generalisation on Hindu terrorists and miscreants, and that’s disappointing given the persistently non-judgmental fact-based nature of the rest of the film. But the filmmakers adroitly make up for that, and add a crucial humanising element, by focusing on some of the pageant contestant’s parents. The film’s most touching moment comes when a mother reveals that her husband wanted to dispose of their girl child, and the child went on to achieve massive success. It’s when you realise that The World Before Her is one of the most important, skillfully made and powerfully provocative films to come in a long time. 

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