By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 30, 2012 at 9:34AM
The young women competing for the title of Miss India in documentarian Nisha Pahuja's Tribeca award-winning "The World Before Her" may represent progress in the context of the country's religious history, but among each other they only want the crown. Often shot in the style of a reality show as competitors Ankita and Ruhi gear up for the pageant, "The World Before Her" complicates matters with a far more provocative look at the interior of a Hindu fundamentalist camp for women where a trenchant leader coaches young participants to take a radical stance against the male-dominated society. In the contrast between flashy pageantry and the extremist education, "The World Before Her" effectively conveys a culture working hard to exorcise its demons.
However, the movie never makes a compelling case for its two-pronged approach. "We are becoming a more modern country," says one of the subjects in the opening minutes, and certainly both the pageant and camp illustrate as much. At the same time, they tackle largely different issues. The pageant reflects a westernization of Indian society, while the camp's brash methods of waking up the participants' aggressive side makes the case that India is, in fact, stuck in its old ways. So which side wins out? "The World Before Her" leaves that question unanswered, and fails to make a case for the juxtaposition.
Nevertheless, the film has plenty of powerful moments that strengthen its depiction of the generational shift currently taking place for Indian women. A title card claims the footage of the fundamentalist camp marks the first time cameras have been allowed inside, revealing a fascinating curriculum that blends mysticism and motivational speeches. Women are taught to fire guns and speak up, while their leader rebuffs claims that she's running a terrorist camp.
Their harsh education makes the glossy prep for the Miss India pageant look downright inconsequential. The grueling physical process involved in preparing for the pageant could fill many episodes of a "Project Runway"-like series. ("It hurts? It looks fab," a trainer says to one of the model's about her catwalk pose.) But the movie contains erratic shifts between this lightly engaging process and a more troubling look at the misogyny plaguing Indian society.
Since India hosted the Miss World pageant in 1996, as the movie points out, major protests have flared up around the country to tamp down on the modeling frenzy. In the national reservations over this western tradition, "The World Before Her" finds a promising reason for young women to compete, turning a superficial tradition into something far more profound. The parents of one girl, watching her onstage from their impoverished home, form a provocative embodiment of an earlier generation praying for their children to chart a better path. They could dominate the movie were it not weighed down by continuing attempts to broaden its perspective.
As a conversation starter, "The World Before Her" gets the job done. By virtue of the topic and interviews, Pahuja showcases plenty of tensions between old world values and idealistic goals. That's hardly enough to make its narrative persistently alluring or emotionally sound. Despite the simple hook, "The World Before Her" is earnestly fragmented. For that same reason, it's easy to see why the movie won the Best Documentary Feature prize at the Tribeca Film Festival last week; each scene is weighted with vast historical consequence, if not argumentative coherence. When a jury must choose between the significance of a message and the skill with which a filmmaker delivers it, sometimes the message wins out.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Not alarming enough to crossover for mainstream audiences, the movie seems likely to have a healthy run on TV, most likely with HBO or a similar network.