<Review by: Sailesh Ghelani>
Documentary Directed by Nisha Pahuja
“Initially, I just wanted to make a simple film like Hoop of Dreams using the Miss India contest as a way to explore the dreams of women in a country that was undergoing a lot of cultural changes after economic liberalisation, which happened in 1992.”
But The World Before Her turned out to be much more than that. As she delved deeper into the Miss World contest she discovered a lot more about the opposing views about the role of Indian women and how they struggle to balance modernism with traditional Indian values. She also met a girl called Prachi from the Durga Vahini camp, a Hindu militant organisation, which trains young girls to fight for Hinduism.
Nisha deftly flip-flops between the two worlds of the behind-the-scenes Miss India contest and the Duga Vahini training camp. Sometimes the images and words shock and at other times they make you laugh out loud. The young Prachi Trivedi, who is a trainer at the camp, gives us valuable insights into the mind set of these ‘fighters’ as well as that of a girl grappling with her gender role and her parents’ views on how a girl should be in Indian society.
Glamour seems to be the last thing you’ll notice at a Miss India Pageant where contestants are asked to wear white linen bed sheets with holes for eyes over their heads because Mar Robinson wants to judge only their ‘beautiful legs’. And then you have a doctor injecting the girls with Botox as a filler for their face, which makes you laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. But the girls seem know they have to do it because it gives them that ‘platform’. So it is their choice.
However, for the girls at Durga Vahini, it’s not always a choice. Their parents force them into it, which does seem at odds sometimes with what they want for their daughters: to be strong but also to be subservient and get married and bear children.
In a telling scene, you see the girls of Durga Vahini – who have just finished a session learning how to shoot a gun – talk about wearing a sash of the organisation and how similar it is to the Miss India sash. You realise that the two worlds aren’t that dissimilar after all. Battles have to be fought even at the pageant against extremists who claim that ‘Western culture’ is ruining Indian values. Prachi’s father talks about how the girls in the contest are wearing skimpy clothes. He’s sitting half naked with his hairy chest exposed while decrying the vulgarity of it all.
Nisha Pahuja says that both the pageants and the camps “… reveal a country and a culture in painful transition.”
It is indeed painful to watch a mother talk about how her husband wanted her to kill their second child just because she was a girl.
Entertaining, stunning and disturbing at times, The World Before Her is a well-made and researched film that makes up for its shaky production values by being effortless and likeable.