Thursday, May 3, 2012

World Before Her

Describing India as a land of contrasts is so cliché.  Yet something becomes cliché because it's true.  World Before Her explores the contrast in the lives of two groups of women.  

On one side are young women at the Miss India pageant.  They see themselves as modern women seizing the opportunities the contest to give them the financial security to take control of their lives.

On the other side are Hindu girls learning to hate Muslims and Christians at the fundamentalist Hindu military-style Durga Vahini  training camps.

Both choices are ugly.  The pageant contestants are relentlessly groomed and forcibly botoxed.  Their bodies are celebrated over their minds.  Yet, they throw themselves into the pageant with passion.  Only a woman of independent means can escape the prison of rigid choices for Indian women and these young women hope to ride their beauty to independence. 

Prasha, the nasty drill sergeant of ambiguous sexuality at the Durga Vahini camp, spouts vitriol against anyone not a Hindu and against Westernization in India - with the Miss India pageant a prime example of such Westernization.  Prasha has suffered at the hands of her father in her strictly Hindu family.  Her father proudly explains that he regularly beats her, and has even burned her with a hot poker.  Yet Prasha defends his right to abuse her, because he gave her gift of life in this nation of rampant female foeticide and infanticide.

 This table (taken from Wikipedia) illustrates Indian demographics, showing the incredible dominance of the Hindus relative to the people they feel threatened by, and also the gender ratios within each religious group.  Presumably the advent of ultrasound explains the continuing decline in the number of females (see the ratios for 0-6 years old).

Table 2: Census information for 2001
Composition Hindus[23] Muslims[24] Christians[25] Sikhs[26] Buddhist[27] Jains[28] Others1[29]
 % total of population 2001 80.5% 13.4% 2.3% 1.9% 0.8% 0.4% 0.6%
10-Yr Growth % (est '91–'01)[30] 20.3% 29.5% 22.6% 18.2% 24.5% 26.0% 103.1%
No. of females/1000 males. (avg. = 944) 935 940 1009 895 955 940 1000
Literacy rate (71.7% for Age 7 & above)[31] 75.5 60.0 90.3 70.4 73.0 95.0 50.0
Work Participation Rate 40.4 31.3 39.7 37.7 40.6 32.9 48.4
Rural sex ratio[30] 944 953 1001 895 958 937 995
Urban sex ratio[30] 922 907 1026 886 944 941 966
Child sex ratio (0–6 yrs) 925 950 964 786 942 870 976
^1 including Bahá'ís, Jews, and Parsis. Tribal Animists (and non religious) are included after 1926 (1931 census onwards)

The Indian government is working to reduce this practice as I described in this post from New Delhi.

The Canadian director Nisha Pahuja worked for two years to gain enough trust to be allowed to film in the Durga Vahini camps; this is the only filming that has been allowed in the camp.  Watching these naive girls from Indian villages being fed such venomous propaganda, and being trained to use rifles, to be ready for the moment when they might have to defend Hinduism, was chilling.   This experience, like being in the pageant, made them feel strong and confident.

Four years in the making, this is an excellent movie, winner of the Best Film award at last week's Tribeca Film Festival.   I'm sure it will do well here in the Hot Docs audience ratings.

World Before Her was paired with a short film, Durga, by another Canadian director, Paramita Nath, which explored the dichotomy between the reverence for the goddess Durga and the desperate lives of many Indian women.  It showed dramatic footage of the celebrations of the festival of Durga, juxtaposed against the hard facts that two thirds of Indian women suffer domestic violence in their marriages.  Another interesting take on the same theme.

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