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.
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.