The World Before Her Reviews
What is the difference between a documentary and propaganda? How do you walk the thin line when you make a documentary having cultural and political undertones? How do you refrain from drilling a particular world view into the audience? These are the questions which baffle me while watching documentaries. Ergo, I usually eschew documentaries. Last documentary which I truly enjoyed was "Super Size Me" by Morgan Spurlock, some 5 years ago. A very good friend recommended "The World Before Her" and I duly obliged. And it is one of the few films where I took copious notes too.
To begin with, I very much appreciate the fact that this film deliberated upon sensitive topic of female-foeticide. I applaud Pooja Chopra's mother for frankly sharing her experience about this abomination.
Secondly, the movie touched upon the topic of corporal punishment meted out to children by Indian parents. Description of corporal punishment meted out to Prachi was unnerving. Its ironic that children (here Prachi) actually justify it inspite of concrete evidence of psychological impacts in later life.
Lastly, I laud the effort of the film-makers to boldly document the events occuring in niches of Indian society. the general effort was aimed at reforming Indian society from within. This is highly laudable.
I have certain reservations with the content matter of the documentary too.
1. I'm a bit surprised by the choice of subjects for the documentation. What exactly the documentary wanted to conclude? At one end the documentary portrays structural and functional constraints at work in Indian society which inhibits women to pursue certain lines of occupation. At another end it insinuates the indoctrination of a bunch of Indian girls by an extreme-right and nationalist organisation. In between it throws punches on religious extremism and religio-political violence.
Conservatism, as such, is a strong undercurrent in Indian society which does fall fowl with certain lines of work for women. Structural and functional constraints for women have very little in common with religious extremism. An otherwise liberal and left-leaning person might be conservative with women. And feminism is all about rights of women in public sphere and politics. Private choices never define a feminist stance. Out of all, this documentary should have set this record straight.
2. What share of Indian women actually aspire to become Miss India or to join Durga Vahini ? I belong to the Hindi heartland of India and I came to know of Durga Vahini only after watching this documentary! Millions of young Indian women aspire to join Civil Services, police, PSUs and Armed Forces every year. On Republic Day 2015 India also showcased all-female military contingents in the parade. I'm surprised at the choice of nano-scaled niche groups which this documentary tries to portray. According to Wikipedia, the strength of Durga Vahini was 8000 in 2002. I'm pretty sure, even today that figure would not have crossed 50,000. Amongst 50 crore Indian women does these niche groups matter?
3. This documentary, like most others, has been made by a film-maker averse to nationalist and conservative world view. This fact is explicit by the facts provided and questions asked in the narrative. This stance can't be called 'liberal' because a liberal world view will respect the choices of a person and wouldn't vie for favourable responses. For example, in a question (towards the end of the film) the interviewer asks about Prachi Trivedi's reaction to 'westernization'- whatever that means. I personally know only of 'globalization' as an influence. As a model herself remarks during the film, will practice of Yoga in US be called 'Indianisation'. The words - Globalization and Westernization- are sure to elicit differing responses from a nationalist, which Trivedi is.
4. I want to comment on some conclusions presented in the documentary.
i) The documentary tells that "Over the past 20 years, Hindu nationalism has become a pervasive cultural and political force in India". I won't comment on political aspect here, but I can safely say that nationalism itself is not a major cultural force in India. A variant of patriotism is at display on national festivals but it doesn't necessarily translates into nationalism. Centuries of British Imperialism followed by decades of domination by Marxist academicians made sure that nationalism never ever becomes a dominant cultural force in India. Hindu nationalism, at best, remains a minor under-current in Indian countryside having value mainly as a handy political tool. If Hindu nationalism would have been a dominant cultural force, it would have annihilated sub-nationalistic currents prevailing in many parts of India.
ii) The documentary asserts that "Hindu extremists are also called the 'Indian Taliban'". This was a statement made for political ends by leaders of a particular grouping. Who else calls whom so ? You've trivialised the factual content by such loose statements. Taliban is a reactionary political grouping in Afganistan and Pakistan. It was midwifed by Americans during Soviet invasion. There are orthodox and reactionary political groupings in all thriving democracies. That's why they are 'democracies'.
iii) The documentary gives the folowing conclusions.
> "Hindu extremists have committed countless atrocities across India".
> "Many beleive Hindu extremists pose a greater threat to national security than Muslim ones"
As I understood the documentary was about the structural and functional constraints for women in society and feminist perspectives. Such statements make the documentary wade into political waters which polarises the opinion.
5. As the documentary was recommended by a very close friend, I made detailed observations. Doing so, I found some factual errors in the documentary.
> Translation for "Desh" as "Nation" instead of "Country" in the subtitles provided by the film-maker. There's a lot of difference between the two especially when you are wading in political waters. (@ 9:36 min in DvD)
> "Main wahan pe top pe jaungi" has been omitted altogether in the subtitles (@ 18:28 min). This omission changes a viewer's perception of the young girl getting trained at Durga Vahini's camp. Poor editing folks.
> "Parishad" refers to 'Vishwa Hindu Parishad' which is an 'organisation'. It is translated as "movement" instead. (@ 30:30 min in DvD). There is a major difference between the two.
> Insinuated "Hinsa" as "murder" (@ 54:51 min). Its 'violence' not 'murder'.
> Added "Culture" in the subtitles (@ 56:28 min.) It is not said by the speaker in the video. Come on folks, these are words which carry weight especially when you are making a documentary on sensitive topics.
In the end, "The World Before Her" is just another documentary made with preconceived notions about certain cultural morrings. It does touch some burning issues but falls flat when it comes to objective and in-depth analysis of deep rooted cultural traditions. If I may paraphrase the statement of a Miss India contestent, 'The World Before Her' certainly has the oomph to make it to the front page of Bombay Times. But alas, that is the last thing on which I'll judge success of anything.
This is a missed opportunity to get candid views on the record, of a wider section of young women, aspiring to be artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, public servants, engineers and administrators, about what it means to live in this century and the promise of the future.
The subcontinent is also home to a growing number of women who are not only educated in English schools, but lived in cosmopolitan cities around the world; There is a very stark contrast between these women and those from traditional and provincial backgrounds. Now that contrast would be a more interesting and an uplifting perspective to present, not just to the western audience.
Meanwhile, 20 women prepare to compete in the Miss India pageant. They talk about being modern and free to follow their desires, but also speak of women being savagely beaten for being out with a man or consuming alcohol. The pageant judges require them to wear white bags over their heads and bodies with eyeholes cut in them, so they can be judged on their legs without the "distraction" of their hair and bodies. One contestant's mother speaks of her husband's desire to murder her daughter at birth, and her defiance resulted in him leaving her a single mother.