Written and Directed by Nisha Pahuja
Run Time: 90 minutes
“There are two Indias” Sabira Merchant, a diction coach for the Miss India beauty pageant tells us.
In 1996, India hosted Miss World, causing masive backlash and numerous protests from both extreme-right wing Hindu nationalist groups and feminist organizations. Since then, beauty pageants have been increasingly vilified by right wing organizations. The World Before Her juxtaposes the 2011 Miss India beauty pageant with training in Durga Vahini – a camp run by the women’s wing of a right wing Hindu organization to make women between 15 and 35 “warrior goddesses”, often labelled a terrorist camp, or the ‘hindu Taliban.’
Pahuja shows us these two sides without ever taking one herself – she shows us strong women on both convinced what they are doing is right. The fundamentalist talks about how the models are destroying Indian culture and presenting themselves as slabs of meat for men and is proud of how strong she’s gotten while teaching little girls how to shoot and claiming she’d kill anyone who threatened her religion. The model talk about how she stands for freedom, progress and choice then says her instant reaction if she found out her son is gay would be to slap him.
And they all have their doubts too. In a particularly poignant moment, we see the fundamentalist we follow most closely cry at her father’s insistence she must marry. The Miss India contestants are taken to a beach and shrouded in a robe with holes cut out for their eyes that covers everything but their legs because the man in charge says he wants to see “just sexy legs”. We see a contestant who had previously claimed that is wasn’t “just physical beauty” being judged wonder if it’s worth the humiliation.
But their worlds are not entirely different. We see model and fundamentalist alike talk about how grateful they are to their parents for creating them, giving birth to them despite their being girls. The fundamentalist sees this as justification for her father hitting her. The models see it as reasons why they have to win and make them proud.
Essentially, the documentary takes a non-judgmental view at two very separate realities for Indian women today. It is important to keep in mind that they are pretty end-of-spectrum examples and in reality most Indian women have a reality somewhere in between, but the documentary does an excellent job of taking two extremes and still dealing with them in a careful, nuanced manner.
Further Reading: Bidwai, Praful. “Confronting the Reality of Hindutva Terrorism”. Economic and Political Weekly 43.47 (2008): 10–13. Web…