It was the sort of weekend that could only happen in San Francisco. 150 naked men meandering down the middle of Castro Street snarled traffic on the way to my first movie of the 3rd i South Asian film festival. Parking the next morning was next to impossible because the Folsom Street fair was in full swing. When I finally made it to the Roxie Theatre there were topless women strolling down the sidewalk next to Sikh men in turbans. Whole lotta flesh in a little bit of leather next to yards and yards of fabric. This is a city of contradictions; sexual freedom brushing shoulders with visible symbols of orthodox religious observance. It was a fitting setting for films grounded in contradiction.
Nisha Pahuja's documentary, "The World Before Her" was a fabulous juxtaposition of two very different, yet very similar worlds. Pahuja follows several contestants in the Miss India Pageant while also documenting a Hindu nationalist training camp for adolescent girls. The film won the world documentary competition at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. At different ends of the spectrum, the beauty pageant represents highly westernized, modern, and commodified views of femininity and beauty. Durga Vahini, the boot camp that trains young Hindu women in Hindu fundamentalist values, presents an idealized version of Indian womanhood that's chaste, subservient, yet ready to respond violently at any provocation from a Christian or Muslim neighbor. The 20 contestants in the Miss India pageant are intelligent, ambitious, and motivated, recognizing that winning the Miss India title is one of the few ways to become financially independent as a single woman in India. And the Durga Vahini recruits are spunky young girls from villages interested in getting out of the house, ensuring their own physical safety, and stepping up to take responsibility for Bharat Mata, their country.
The Miss India contestants are surprisingly aware of the sexism they're experiencing, yet willing to put up with it to get what they want. "Look sexy, not bitchy" they're told by a photographer, and they're visibly uncomfortable when they're covered with sheets from the head to the groin and then asked to walk the catwalk in spike heels so another photographer can "Really see their legs. Sometimes you get distracted by a pretty face." They're taught to walk, to speak, they're botoxed, they're aerobicized. Yet the young female contestant from Jaipur is the only woman in the film who has an honest, loving relationship with her father. In contrast, the 24-year-old trainer at the Durga Vahini camp, skilled in self-defense and willing to kill for the ideals of Hindu nationalism, is the daughter of a patriarchal Brahmin who openly admits to physically abusing her. Conflicted about her sexuality and unwilling to get married, she's headed for an ugly confrontation with her father who insists a woman's place is to be married and "bear children." She admits that she supports a cause that subjugates her, saying "I'm a girl. There are no options." As she watches the Miss India pageant televised live, it's clear that the pageant, which offers a narrow opportunity for young, modern, light-skinned Indian women is a world undreamable by the majority of Indian women.
But the real story is that Miss India 2009, Pooja Chopra, was almost killed as an infant because she was a girl. Her father demanded that her mother commit infanticide to get rid of an unwanted female baby or he would leave. Her mother refused, and left the house and a marriage filled with domestic violence, raising two girls on her own. "When my mum walked out on my dad, she said to him, 'one day this girl will make me proud.'" All my life I've wanted my mum to be proud of the decision that she chose me,'" says Chopra. Both the Miss India contestants and the Durga Vahini recruits are looking for a model of Indian womanhood they can learn and inhabit. Yet all realize their very existence as women is not a given. They all feel they have to prove their worth in a country where a pregnancy of a female child justifies foeticide or infanticide in the eyes of many parents.
So perhaps it was not surprising that in the panel of three films about Sikh identity including Mandeep Sethi's "Sikligar," Harjant Gill's "Roots of Love," and Christina Antonakos-Wallace's "Article of Faith" there is much ado about Sikh men, their hair, and their turbans, but no women's voices except those that openly support the patriarchy and religious orthodoxy. "Article of Faith" follows the activist Sonny Singh working for the Sikh Coalition in New York to establish a positive Sikh identity in a wave of incidents targeting Sikhs post 9/11, particularly working with Sikh boys bullied because of their topknots. "Sikligar" reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there Sikh groups in India subjugated by casteism and left behind in poverty and illiteracy.
But it is Harjant Gill that speaks my language. In the panel discussion after the films he discussed the fact that it's the Sikh male body that's the site of the religious- everyone is invested in men wearing the turban. And men cutting their hair to assimilate into western culture? That's also the concern of everyone in the family, male and female. The documentary presents a touching portrait of a man rebuked by his parents for "murdering his hairs," yet he recognizes that rejection as a consequence of gaining the freedom to articulate his own personal identity. Perhaps it's fair that Sikh men, who have been targeted, attacked, and killed throughout history because of their turbans, are then invested with the religious authority of their families because they wear them. Yet it's a double-edged sword: they have the responsibility of representing a family's orthodox belief to the world resting on their shoulders. And women, as a result, aren't part of the process unless they're willing to support, or in certain cases, pressure men to wear turbans. All the films were a provocative inquiry into the construction of gender and religious identity in India, and certainly didn't disappoint.