The World Before Her takes on India from two opposing angles, providing an interesting exploration of the conflict between local traditions and globalized culture. Writer/director Nisha Pahuja (Diamond Road, Bollywood Bound), a Canada-based documentary filmmaker, has taken a simple approach that knocks the wind out of you with its sobering revelations about the role of women in contemporary India. The World Before Her won best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival.
Contrasting contestants in the Miss India Beauty Pageant with attendees of a Hindu nationalist camp for young girls, Nisha Pahuja finds truth in the clash of her subjects. Ruhi Singh is an ambitious, pretty girl from a rural town hoping to achieve freedom, respect and life options from the Miss India Pageant. Prachi Trivedi is a self-confessed tomboy and aggressive camp leader. She earnestly tells Pahuja in an interview, it’s nice to yell at people because it makes you feel important.
Trivedi isn’t a monster. If anything she emerges as the tragic figure of the film; the only subject aware of the fate her gender assigns her. Durga Vahini is the women’s branch of the right-wing political group Vishwa Hindu, also known as the ‘Hindu Taliban’. They provide camps that educate young Hindu women on their role within society. From what we see, it involves teaching that Christians and Muslims are the reason for the degradation of Indian society, that women must be married by eighteen (because soon after a woman becomes “too strong willed”), and that their “careers” should be focused on protecting their country, by force if necessary. There are numerous shots of girls learning to shoot rifles. Pahuja is the first filmmaker to ever get access to these camps and the footage is extraordinary. Trivedi yearns for freedom and power but is aware of the restrictions placed upon her by the very value system she would violently protect.
Miss India doesn’t far much better under Pahuja’s scrupulous eye. We see preparatory scenes of contestant Singh given botox and her skin bleached. In one particularly queasy part of the competition, the final contestants are required to don sacks that cover their head and faces. The idea is to judge who has the best legs without the distraction of their other features. Singh wants freedom and respect but at one point of the competition comments, “at what cost”.
The World Before Her is screening at the Sydney Film Festival on June 11th and June 14th.
Click here to visit the SFF website for more details.