“The World Before Her” at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Following the screening of their new documentary, “The World Before Her,” at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22, director Nisha Pahuja and producer Cornelia Principe talked about their objective in making this interesting new film profiling two subcultures in India. Pahuja explained that she wanted to “parallel two worlds by making a film about two different Indias and how these play out on the bodies of women.”
Pahuja’s statement nicely encapsulates “The World Before Her,” a documentary that compares and contrasts women in a training camp for Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Hindu fundamentalist movement, with, of all things, beauty pageant hopefuls vying to be crowned Miss India. Hindu nationalism, with its traditional values, has become a strong political force in India. Western ideas, like beauty pageants, go against fundamentalist ideas. Pahuja explained that fundamentalists are not opposed to modernization. She said they feel that their culture is being assaulted when people in India take on western influences. In contrast, a beauty contestant interviewed in the film, expresses the opinion that she is not any more western for her participation in the pageant than an American who goes to a yoga class is Indian.
While these two groups may at first seem incongruous, what makes “The World Before Her” such a unique documentary is that it draws striking similarities between the fundamentalists and the beauty queen hopefuls, while also bringing out their obvious differences. Each subculture is, in its own way, trying to advance the cause of women in a male dominated culture.
Both sets of women subject their bodies to certain amounts of rigor. Those in the fundamentalist group go through a boot camp like training regimen that involves two and a half hour sessions of training in the heat, while learning how to maim and kill any potential enemies. They also endure a certain amount of mental indoctrination, being told, at one point, that they must marry by age 18, because by the age of 25 women are so strong willed that they will not be able to be trained. In contrast, the young women competing for the title of “Miss India” go in for four weeks of grooming. In the process, those who require it receive injections of Botox and endure painful dermatological processes to lighten their skin. Ankita, one of the contestants, explains that she is pursuing the pageant because she wants her own identity in a society dominated by men. It is also brought out that the TV exposure and contracts which come with being crowned Miss India offer the winner one of the only ways of achieving financial stability equal to that of Indian men.
“The World Before Her” has been skillfully edited, presenting both sides in a manner that utilizes the sociological concept of cultural relativism. The film shows each side on its own terms, as opposed to taking an ethnocentric approach, which would mean that the filmmaker was looking at it from a culturally biased point of view. Pahuja ended the Q&A by explaining that the film is about an India in transition. She posed the question, “Will India progress and be modern, or be traditional?”