The World Before Her directed by Nisha Pahuja is an eye-opening and disturbing documentary about the limited options for girls and young women in India. The film juxtaposes two opposing elements — the Miss India pagent and a Hindu fundamentalist training camp.
Those of us in the west have such ambivalence about beauty pagents and this contest — which includes a month long boot camp to prepare the young women — does nothing to convince me that they are anything more than a meat market for women’s bodies. But it did show that these contests are one of very few options young women have of getting out of the prescribed roles that still dominate Indian women’s lives. These young women are desperate to get out of poverty, desperate to have a future, and this is one way to make it happen. So I can totally understand why a young woman would try with everything she has to make this happen for her future.
During the pagent period they are stars. Interviewed in the newspapers and exalted for their beauty. But we also see the seedy side especially the one day when the event was focused on the girls legs where they were forced to wear bags on their heads and walk the runway. That was incredibly disturbing.
Intertwined with the beauty pagent is the story of a young woman whose best option in life is to become a radical Hindu fundamentalist. Director Pahuja is the first director to go behind the scenes at the Durgha Vahini camp and record the training and brainwashing of girls into radical fundamentalists. The girls are told that they are to stay home. They are to have kids. That they do not need to learn. That they should be willing to die for the Hindu cause. That any other belief is wrong and their job is to make sure that those other beliefs do not spread. The conviction in their voices in heart stopping.
Here’s what the director said when describing the film:
The battle I chose to focus on is the battle between tradition and “modernity,” fundamentalism and capitalism and how this plays out on the bodies of women. In some ways what hangs in the balance is not just the future of women in this country but the very future of the country itself — for how can democracy flourish in a place so obsessed with sons it aborts 750,000 girls every year?
The film shows how little value is placed on women’s lives and bodies and is very timely as we, here in the US, are dealing with political issues being played out on women’s bodies. This film illustrates that this is something happening worldwide and the consequences for girls and women and all our futures are grave.
The film is playing at Hot Docs in Toronto this weekend. I am sure it will get picked up for release in the near future.