The World Before Her is a documentary written and directed by Nisha Pahuja, a Canadian filmmaker born in India. It was four years in the making which allowed Pahuja to gain trust with the women she interviewed and gain a very personal and unique insight. The film won best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The monumental social changes occurring in India and the effect those changes are having on women’s lives are explored as we witness the lives of Indian women who initially seem to have little in common: contestants in the Miss India pageant and participants in a training camp for young women from an extremist Hindu movement.
Miss India is held in Mumbai, a city of 20 million, where the juxtaposition of Old India and New India is stark: rickshaws and Mercedes compete on the roads, 5-star hotels abut teeming slums and beautiful girls strut the catwalk in a society where women have been traditionally modest and demure. Beauty pageants are controversial in many countries and criticised for objectifying women but in India it has caused riots. Here the bikini round is held behind closed doors.
The contestants in the pageant go on beauty boot camp, an intensive grooming regime that includes botox injections, fillers and skin whitening treatments. Contestants see beauty as a way to equal men financially and have a voice. All are ambitious and articulate about what they want and come from India’s huge and growing urban middle class.
We then go to Aurangabad to the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of a Hindu Nationalist group. The movement is known as the “Indian Taliban” because of its extremist views on the role of women and its pro-violence, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian stance. At this boot camp young girls endure 4am starts during 30 days of whistles, chanting, physical challenges and shooting. Pretty young girls in colourful kurta pyjamas train crawling commando-style and running barefoot in the dust.
Prachi has attended the camps since she was three and says she would kill for the movement. She trains the girls in their drills and shouts herself hoarse keeping them frightened and obedient, and embodies the dilemma many Indian women face between what they want for themselves and what their fathers demand of them.
Both Prachi from the Durga Vahini and the Miss India contestants are bound by a contemporary Indian society that still values boys above girls. In India 750,000 girls are aborted every year. All the women featured in the film are ambitious and struggle to achieve more in their lives than being wives and mothers in a society of rapid social and economic change.
The young girls from Durga Vahini leave the camp feeling like warrior Goddesses. Ironically when they graduate they receive sashes they say are “like Miss India” and they giggle and don them with pride.
The World Before Her is screening during the Sydney Film Festival on June 11 at 11:45 am and June 14 at 10am at Event Cinemas George Street.