Photo courtesy of VIFF
DIR: Nisha Pahuja | Canadian Images | Canada | 2012 | 91 mins | English and Hindi
Thursday, October 11 6:00pm | Empire Granville 7 Th 5
Two girls, two opposite lives. At first, Nisha Pahuja's documentary looks like a simple film illustrating two dichotomous worlds struggling for supremacy in Indian society. Representing the modernization of India, we have the first protagonist Ruhi, a young 19-year-old vying for the coveted Miss India crown. On the other side, we have Prachi who lives an existence drastically different from Ruhi's, working as an instructor for a Hindu fundamentalist camp in the rural countryside.
Beauty pageants are a contentious subject in India. Far beyond just representing beauty, the girls participating in these pageants also symbolize a generation of Indians who are affluent, educated, and above all, competitive. Striving for the best, these girls will stop at nothing to fulfill their visions of success and their right to do so. It is a thoroughly modern view that other parts of Indian society feel threatened by and vehemently object to.
Montages of women being dragged from bars and attacked are juxtaposed with the high-pitched cries of young girls practicing martial arts drills at a Durga Vahini camp. Durga Vahini is one of the most active fundamentalist groups in India and is the one that Prachi wishes to devote her life to. Ironically, while preaching chastity and devotion to the young girls of her troop, Prachi scoffs such conventions for herself. Interviews with Prachi's father highlight how he hopes to marry her off, despite Prachi's objections, and how casually he will beat her if she disobeys. One particularly disturbing interview involving Prachi and her father relate how he put a burning poker to her foot as a child, amid much laughter and sheepish smiles.
What struck me most about this film was that although the two girls' lives could not seem farther apart, they are also eerily similar. Prachi thrills in the empowerment and religious fervour ignited in her at the Durga Vahini camps and repeatedly emphasizes her utter passion to the cause by saying she was "born for this;" yet, her power is ultimately for naught as she lives entirely at the mercy of her father's will. Ruhi, who is seemingly more free living on her own in the city, feels enticed by the thought of financial independence bought by a crown, but finds that she too is also at the will of the objectification she is subjected to by the pageant demands. Both the beauty queen and Durga Vahini bootcamps operate like indoctrination factories, instructing their followers on the proper modes of femininity and thought. Both women desire more than what life has given them and both seek the same end goal, albeit with entirely different strategies.
A thoroughly fascinating and expertly shot film, Pahuja does an excellent job of drawing inexperienced viewers in to the complexities of modern India. In India's struggles to maintain its sense of self against the rushing tides of Western modernization, Pahuja demonstrates how these current day battles echo ancient ones and how the fate of these young girls parallel the fate of the nation.
A life-long lover of the ability for a story to transport the viewer into another world, Jordana is always up for anything from a documentary, to a rom-com. When she's not reading or watching films, she can be found living online as Schema's social media producer. Tell her what you think about VIFF on @schema_magazine.