At first, Prachi seems to speak for the old world, where women have no agency, and Ruhi for the new, where we are ostensibly free. But it quickly becomes clear that both these worlds are responses to modernity. The battle, as always, is being fought on the bodies of women — and our freedom is as elusive on either side.
Each side feels like a factory, where women are sought to be shaped into pre-given forms — forms of use to militant religious nationalism, or forms that might enter themselves smoothly into the capitalist commodity machine. But Pahuja’s painstaking interviews reveal that the factories do not only spit out the well-oiled clones they might want. Ankita Shorey wins third place in the Miss India pageant, but she knows that “achieving her dreams” comes at the cost of objectification. Prachi remains terrifyingly loyal to the Hindutva vision — even as she recognises that the ideology she wishes to make a career of declares that women should not have careers.
The rhetoric throws up constant contradictions. Amid all the enforced thrusting-out of butts and boobs, it isn’t too persuasive to hear ex-Miss India Pooja Malhotra insist that the pageant isn’t only about “external beauty”. The DV atmosphere is one of near-machismo: when a girl fumbles over a gun, the teacher jeers: “Are you planning to chop onions all your life?” Yet marriage is a woman’s only future: one DV leader mocks male-female equality even as she proclaims that girls must be married by 18, because by 25 they would be “too mature to control”.
Pahuja’s talent for juxtaposition gives the film great texture. The DV girls giggling over their saffron sashes as being Miss-India-like; the uniformity of the beauty pageant eerily echoing DV’s drills; both Ruhi and Prachi calling themselves ‘products’ that must fulfil their parents’ expectations.
The film’s juxtapositions reach their acme with female foeticide — and it is also here that any equivalence between the film’s two worlds must be abandoned. We learn that Pooja Malhotra’s mother walked out of her marriage to keep her baby daughter alive. Soon after, Prachi tells us that she cannot really be angry with her father for curtailing her ambitions, because after all, he let her live. Malhotra’s love of her mother is stronger for knowing the battles she fought, but she does not carry around the burden of perpetual gratitude. But if Prachi’s world were to be our future, all women would be forever beholden to men — for their very lives. Crushed under such a weight, what other battles could we possibly hope to fight?
Published in BLInk, Hindu Business Line's Saturday paper.