Training Days

A filmmaker recounts shooting at a Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls

A Durga Vahini recruit learns how to use a rifle in a still from Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her. COURTESY NISHA PAHUJA
01 August, 2013

IN THE THIRD WEEK OF MAY 2010, filmmaker Nisha Pahuja and her crew began their first day of shooting at a summer camp in Aurangabad organised by the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Hindu nationalist group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Pahuja and her team rose early with the Vahini’s young recruits at 4 am to film a day of physical combat training and lectures, a regime that, according to the organisation’s president Malaben Rawal, would begin the process of the girls’ “transformation into tigers”.

Towards the evening, to the film crew’s shock, they were asked to pack their camera bags, gather their belongings and leave the camp. “Someone at the camp hadn’t known of our presence and it terrified him,” explained Pahuja in a conversation I had with her last month. But Pahuja refused to admit defeat. She recalled digging her feet in and telling the camp authorities, “I won’t go.” With nothing to lose, she fought for her film’s life, reminding Durga Vahini officers, “I’ve been talking to people for two years to make this happen.”

Luckily, her pleas did not fall on deaf ears. “Malaben helped us reach a compromise,” Pahuja said. “However, our access was curtailed and we were not allowed to attend the lectures, where all the real brainwashing was taking place.”

Despite these limitations, the ten-day access that the crew negotiated was a first in the history of the Durga Vahini, which gained prominence in the early 1990s. Pahuja’s film The World Before Her (2012) weaves stories from the camp together with those of young girls undergoing a starkly different kind of training—for the Miss India beauty pageant in Mumbai. With a tentative December release date for India, the film has already been screened at numerous international film festivals, and won top prizes last year at New York’s Tribeca Festival and the prestigious Canadian festival Hot Docs.

In both the Miss India and Durga Vahini boot camps, minds and bodies are nipped and tucked into shape. “When you train for two-and-a-half hours in the heat, you will believe in yourself,” Rawal promises recruits at the Vahini camp. In the Miss India camp, meanwhile, a doctor wields a botox needle to fix ‘imperfectly’ proportioned faces. “If I put a little chin, in the sense that I put a little filler in this, then that would be perfect ... more harmonious,” she says. On the morning of graduation day at the Durga Vahini camp, as girls’ suitcases disgorge hand mirrors, hair combs, bows and saffron sashes, one excited girl even compares herself to sash-wearing Miss India contestants.

Pahuja’s film takes viewers into darker places, too, such as a training ground where girls with beaming faces assemble to sing, “Ask for milk, we’ll give you kheer, ask for Kashmir, we’ll slit your throats.” We listen to a youth leader, Prachi, when she tells the camera, “Frankly, I hate Gandhi,” and “I am thinking I want to be the next Sadhvi Pragya Singh. You must have heard about her, the Malegaon blast. She’s a saint. She’s a Sadhvi.” In another scene, girls as young as 14 chant, “Mark your foreheads with blood and welcome your enemy with bullets,” as they march in procession and stall traffic along a busy street.

The film seems to suggest that the Hindutva movement is a kind of shelter for its recruits. “I’m different from girls and different from boys and I don’t know how to behave. The Hindu movement is life for me,” Prachi says at one point. According to Pahuja, the film aims “to show the complexity, not answer the complexity” of the Durga Vahini movement. To her credit, it succeeds in showing the camp’s ironic function as a safe house for adolescent minds and bodies at war with gender expectations—a space in which oppressive domestic and gender protocols are suspended, even as lecturers hold forth on how too much education is a bad thing, and how a Hindu woman’s duty is to follow the example set “5000 years ago” by women who conformed to their own “natural weakness”.

Pahuja explained that an honest and transparent approach helped her win her subjects’ confidence. “I don’t judge them,” she said. “People feel that I’m not threatening. I always tell people what I’m doing. With the fundamentalists, I was really honest. I told them I had huge problems with what they were doing, but that I wanted to understand them.” The atmosphere of intimacy in scenes shared by Prachi and the disembodied voice of the filmmaker is testimony to the level of trust that Pahuja earned. In one scene, Pahuja asks Prachi if she recognises the contradiction inherent in her loyalty to a system that controls her. “Yes, I know that,” Prachi tells her, seeming at a loss for words. “Whatever I am thinking for my life ... it is against the system for which I’m working.”

(The World Before Herreleases on 6 June 2014 in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune.)