The World Before Her. Documentary/90 minutes/English, Hin­di
Direct­ed by: Nisha Pahu­ja. Coun­try: Cana­da
Review by Shazia Javed

It is a well-known say­ing that India is a coun­try which lives in sev­er­al cen­turies at the same time. It is on this pecu­liar­i­ty of the Indi­an soci­ety that The World Before Her casts a fem­i­nist eye. On one side of its spec­trum, in a small town of Aurangabad, young girls are attend­ing a camp run by Dur­ga Vahi­ni, which is the women’s wing of the largest Hin­du nation­al­ist group; on the oth­er side, twen­ty young women—hand-picked from all over India—participate in a Miss India con­test to be held in the met­ro­pol­i­tan city of Mum­bai. The film’s nar­ra­tive is built through cross- cut­ting between these two “worlds”, embed­ding its text and visu­als with sig­nif­i­cant and mul­ti-lay­ered socio-polit­i­cal obser­va­tions and infer­ences.

One of the main par­tic­i­pants, Prachi, has been attend­ing these camps twice a year since age three (at the time of mak­ing of the film she was twen­ty- four years old); she now ini­ti­ates oth­er girls at the camp. Girls in the camp are giv­en phys­i­cal-strength train­ing, taught karate moves and giv­en hands-on expe­ri­ence in rifle shoot­ing, while fol­low­ing a strict dai­ly regime. They are instruct­ed to be keep­ers of cul­ture; they are women who stay at home, rather than pur­sue voca­tions out­side of the home. They must abstain from fash­ion. They are incul­cat­ed with the belief that Mus­lims and Chris­tians are ene­mies against whose attacks they must be pre­pared to fight at any time. Adher­ing to this hin­dut­va mod­el of women-hood will afford them the sta­tus of “dig­ni­fied” and “pro­duc­tive” mem­bers of soci­ety.

Anoth­er par­tic­i­pant, Ruhi, wants to win the Miss India pageant and under­goes train­ing to become the best in “beau­ty busi­ness”, along with oth­er con­tes­tants. These con­tes­tants are inject­ed with Botox to give their faces a “har­mo­nious sym­me­try”, which is some­times con­sid­ered miss­ing by 0.6 inch­es in chin length; they also under­go skin-light­en­ing treat­ments and take dic­tion class­es. They par­take in pho­to-ses­sions in which they are taught how to ser­e­nade the cam­era and plea­sure the het­ero­sex­u­al male gaze, i.e. to look “sexy” and not “bitchy”. They are being “pol­ished” to fit a pre-cast mold of beau­ty in order to win over about a bil­lion of tele­vi­sion view­ers (read adver­tis­ers). The winner(s) will gain finan­cial inde­pen­dence, instant fame and a promis­ing career.

Direc­tor Nisha Pahu­ja, whose film Bol­ly­wood Bound (2003) for­ayed into the world of young Cana­di­ans want­i­ng to be Bol­ly­wood stars, is no new­com­er to Mum­bai and the ordeals of its glam­our world. She suc­cess­ful­ly cap­tures the sub­tle nuances of the pageant and uses small things to make big impact. One such moment is when Marc Robin­son, a con­test orga­niz­er makes the girls wear white sacs to cov­er all their body –except­ing legs—so he can judge who has the most beau­ti­ful legs with­out being dis­tract­ed by oth­er body parts. When one of the veiled con­tes­tants inad­ver­tent­ly remarks, “Escape from the Tal­iban”, we are made aware of the inher­ent irony of their sit­u­a­tion.

With The World Before Her, Pahu­ja becomes the first film­mak­er to gain access to a Hin­du-extrem­ist camp. Her real suc­cess, though, lies in the seam­less jux­ta­po­si­tion of the two events (pageant and the camp) to high­light the dif­fer­ences and, even­tu­al­ly, to find sim­i­lar­i­ties in these two seem­ing­ly polar­ized sit­u­a­tions for women. As the women in the film reflect upon, explore, and nav­i­gate their way through dichoto­mous sit­u­a­tions, we find that that there is one promi­nent com­mon­al­ty through the con­trast­ing “cen­turies” that India lives in, and that is patriarchy’s strong-hold on women and the latter’s strug­gle to cre­ate an effec­tive space for them­selves. Women in both the “worlds” must endure phys­i­cal pain, sub­mit to be pro­grammed in a cer­tain way of con­duct in both per­son­al and pub­lic spheres, and make com­pro­mis­es to gain accep­tance. The most strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ty in the women is their over-whelm­ing grat­i­tude to their par­ents for keep­ing them alive and not killing them before or after birth; this is a strong com­ment on the prac­tice of female infan­ti­cide in India.

Access to Dur­ga Vahi­ni camp also affords Pahu­ja with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pro­vide us glimpses into anoth­er off­shoot of patri­archy: reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism. Tak­en togeth­er, archival footage of Male­gaon blasts, moral polic­ing of women, and the 2002 geno­cide of Mus­lims in Gujarat by the “Hin­du Tal­iban”, demon­strate the grav­i­ty and extent of the teach­ings impart­ed at the camp. The film’s use of text to con­tex­tu­al­ize these seg­ments will be espe­cial­ly use­ful to the audi­ence who may not be famil­iar with India’s social con­flicts or recent his­to­ry beyond the inter­na­tion­al head­lines in the main­stream media.

Even with such strong com­men­tary on the social sys­tem to which the film’s main par­tic­i­pants belong, its nar­ra­tive takes time (both real and cin­e­mat­ic) to help us under­stand the women and thus calls for empa­thy and not per­son­al judg­ment. Songs, like a poignant ren­di­tion of the Indi­an nation­al anthem in the pro­logue-like open­ing sequence, are used in the film to add mean­ing. In oth­er sequences, songs are used in the voice-over to play out the intrin­sic ironies of a sit­u­a­tion. The begin­nings and end­ings of the two events pro­vide a nat­ur­al lin­ear nar­ra­tive to the film and there are enough hooks to the sto­ries to keep the audi­ence engaged until the end. An insight­ful film, The World Before Her has much to con­tribute to the dis­course of the future of women in India and the role they are to play in its soci­ety.

Author Biog­ra­phy
Shazia Javed is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and film­mak­er. She holds a bachelor’s degree (with hon­ors) in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and a Master’s degree in Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Her doc­u­men­tary NAMRATA was an offi­cial selec­tion at Hot Docs Toron­to among oth­er film fes­ti­vals and a final­ist for three AMPIA (Alber­ta Media Pro­duc­tion Indus­tries Asso­ci­a­tion) awards. Her inter­est areas include Indi­an cin­e­ma, gen­der-con­structs, Islam and women in the media, and doc­u­men­tary films.