Writer-director Nisha Pahuja's documentary The World Before Her offers a fascinating look at the lives of women living in India today. It juxtaposes two seemingly coexisting but separate worlds: an old and a new India.
The world of the 'old India' is illustrated with a camp run by Durga Vahini, the women's wing of the largest Hindu nationalist group. Rare insight into the group is provided, as it is the first time filming of its training camp has been allowed. The lessons there are intense and range from fitness training, lessons on gun use and spiritual teaching, with the goal to "protect the Hindu religion". There is a specific focus on a young teacher at the camp named Prachi, who aspires to become the future leader of Durga Vahini. As viewers learn more about her, however, it becomes clear that she may not get to determine her own destiny, because her ambition clashes with family expectations and traditional values.
In contrast, the 'new India' is symbolized by the Miss India beauty pageant. A group of 20 finalists are followed as they enter a tightly scheduled program that includes botox injections, skin whitening treatment and teaching on how to pose and look attractive in photo shoots. Some of the women are clearly reluctant to have toxins and chemicals applied to their faces, but they comply in order to stay in the competition with the hope of winning so that they can have a better future and the freedom to do things they would otherwise not get the opportunity to do.
In the end, it is evident that the two worlds are not entirely separate. They often interact and sometimes clash with each other. The Miss India contest bikini round has to be carried out behind closed doors for the fear of causing outrage from political and religious groups; while Prachi and her father, who see the pageant as vulgar, are amongst the one billion people who watch the broadcast on television.
The film actually demonstrates that there is one important similarity between women in the old and new India: they all long for choices and equality, which are not freely available. Women may get assaulted by Hindu extremists for being seen with men or for drinking in bars; Prachi is regularly beaten by her father as she was growing up; and in order to achieve empowerment, women in the beauty contest have to put up with the often degrading treatment like having to do catwalks with linen over their faces and torso just so that the pageant organizers could focus on their legs.
With The World Before Her, Nisha Pahuja has given viewers much more than a glimpse into both the old and new India, and she has been greatly helped by David Kazala who did the wonderful editing. It is a powerful and insightful documentary that tells the world about some of the difficulties faced by women living in India today. "Are you going to spend your whole life chopping vegetables" is a question asked by one of the teachers at the Durga Vahini camp. Judging by the documentary, while it seems that women in neither of the two worlds would willingly answer that question with a 'yes', in a country that is largely dominated by men and governed by traditions, most of them will not be able to say 'no' either.
The World Before Her had its Australian premiere today at the Sydney Film Festival, and will have its second screening there on Thursday June 14.
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