Contesting identities – exploring the role of women in India

April 3, 2013

By Nishat Ahmed

The preview screening of The World Before Her held the audience captive at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 2 April. It was not just the trials and tribulations of two opposites – a beauty contest and a fundamentalist Hindu training camp – but a means by which to focus on the contesting roles of women in India.

Written and directed by Nisha Pahuja the film explores the pace of change in Indian society. It chronicles the 2011 Miss India contest and portrays life in the Durga Vahini camps run by a large Hindu fundamentalist organisation, the Viśva Hindu Pariṣad (VHP).

Nisha Pahuja


The screening was followed by a question and answer session with Pahuja who explained that the film had been in the making since 2008 when she saw the Miss India pageant on a trip to India. At the time she was also aware of the reprisals from Hindu religious groups who opposed it as western cultural import.

According to Pahuja the pace of modernisation and the backlash from traditional religious groups like the VHP is most pronounced in their definition of the role of women in India:

“I used the Miss India contest as a way to look at a country that was undergoing extreme cultural changes. . . . Once I started to read about the opposition to this pageant from the feminist camp and from the Hindu fundamentalist camp the film started to expand.”

Pahuja explained it was not easy to film the Aurangabad training camps, gaining their trust was a difficult journey and took a lot of time. On the surface, the lives of these young women showed a seemingly diametrically opposite world to the beauty pageant:

“Getting access to the Durga Vahini camp took two years. I didn’t want to take sides, even though I found their politics distasteful and problematic. I felt they had a right to articulate. . . . I was always very honest with them . . . but I also found the Durga camp so dark. To take young innocent minds and to mold them to hate and to see everything as ‘other’ was really painful.”

During the research for the film, Pahuja discovered that the VHP sell the idea of the camps as something that promotes Hindu culture, values, history and education as they feel the school system is biased and distorted and they have to rectify what they feel is wrong. Therefore the divide in the film is between tradition and modernity as well as religious and secularism.

Asked about the reasons why women become the focus of the struggle against westernisation, Pahuja explained that it was also about disempowerment:

“I think I’m starting to see things more in terms of power – dynamics of power – and women are powerless. They are easy targets for people who don’t have power themselves and I think this idea of women in the nationalist struggle, of the body of the woman being the cradle of country and identity, is so age old, it doesn’t surprise me that it continues itself around the whole world and not just in India.”

The film has been well received in the festival circuit and also screened in India where they are looking for larger theatrical distribution. Pahuja‘s future plans include work on the recent Delhi gang rape case and the rise of fundamentalism. More details and the film and future screenings can be found on the official website WorldBeforeHer.com and on Twitter @Worldbeforeher.