The last scenes of the documentary The World Before Her show the supervisors for the Durga Vahini camp for girls, giving out sashes for their young graduates, telling them to wear then like the contestants in Miss India. It echoes the conceit that it already and blatantly shows in earlier parts of the movie, that armed Indian nationalism and Bollywood glamour are their own warped schools of fundamentalism. The movie intercuts scenes where both groups of young women undergo physical training. The Durga Vahini girls doing one two punch combinations while the pageant contestants have to do thigh raises, both being instructed by women who tell them either to be strong or graceful. The difference of these routines, however, can’t – or aren’t trying to – hide the fact that these women are used as bodies, those bodies used to sacrifice for a greater cause. In that sense both ideologies are modern in that they allow women out of the house. For a while. But they have to get married and have children unless they’re either rich or dead.
Showing ninety minutes of these same differences never gets boring because of the shock value – not as gratuitous as the phrase implies – of what we’re seeing from both sides. The interview subjects from the Durga Vahini camp extol the place’s virtues and tell them how training has changed them, and that seems innocent enough until we remember the misinformation that the camp is contributing to. Prachi, who doubles as a student and a counselor, talk about factual inaccuracies about other races while kids younger than her are taking the place’s anti-Christian and Islamophobic teachings to heart. Without giving too much away, the same goes for the pageant, who don’t necessarily teach their contestants anything but instead gives the latter platforms to speak about their uneducated views on sexuality and then talk about how much smarter they are compared to pageant contestants from other countries. This movie unites and gets a good reaction from their audiences especially about the latter’s inanity.
I do have a strange affinity for ‘freedom fighters’ while being hard on the beauty contestants. But despite of the icky sexuality of the pageant I do prefer what it represents. By a hair. If I had to choose. My love for ‘modernity’ and contemporary values is what I’ll take away from the documentary. The tipping point from me for my decision is Prachi’s father, who’s countless sins include being shirtless all the time while deploring the supposedly vulgar fashions that the contestants are wearing. His worst sins of all are the different ways that he physically abuses his daughter and complaining that she cries, without thinking that she’s crying because he punches her. He also makes her grateful that she’s alive, because, as the movie shows us through inter-titles, second daughters are often aborted or killed in India. He reminds me of my favourite tenet of modernity that has dismantled Western civilization for the better. It’s that some people shouldn’t have children, and it’s something that ever civilization should learn.
Three men look for their mysteriously estranged college mate, Ranchoddas or Rancho (Aamir Khan), and coming along later in the journey is his on-and-off girlfriend Pia (Kareena Kapoor), their ex-headmaster’s daughter. Rancho is so memorable to these characters because of the joy he has brought to their younger selves, since most of these other characters are prone to suicidal thoughts, mental breakdowns and quarter life crises brought on by the general competitiveness of middle class, college life. ‘Life is a race,’ but Rancho thinks that a musical number is decent cardio too. Standing between the binaries that this film and its context present, he’s Western because of his idealistic view on education and love, Eastern because of his altruism and anti-materialism. What’s also admirable about this film is that it lets Rancho be wrong sometimes, its most heartfelt moment is when the headmaster, teary-eyed, tells him that he can’t be right all the time.
There’s also Pia, who, by learning how to stand up against her former fiancée as well as her father, is a woman more feminist than a Deepa Mehta protagonist. And since we’re comparing movies about India, the film also echoes the triumphalism of Slumdog Millionaire, the but the ride is wilder this time, taking characters to opposite emotional cliffs and back.
- Aamir’s tricky marketing strategy (aamirkhanblog.wordpress.com)