POV | The World Before Her
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Watch Sunday, March 15, 2015 at 11pm on WORLD.

The World Before Her is a fascinating portrait of two women and two Indias. It reveals a world of startling contrasts between urban and rural, jeans and saris, consumer culture and poverty, where rapid economic development fuels a sharpening conflict between tradition and modernity—especially when it touches on women and religion. In focusing on two particularly thoughtful young women—one a militant Hindu nationalist, the other a contestant for Miss India—The World Before Her provides a timely account of a multi-faceted, often confusing clash over values and the future of the world’s largest democracy.

Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, winner of the World Documentary Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, has its national broadcast premiere on the award-winning PBS documentary series POV (Point of View). American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV has been honored with a MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

In 2011, 20 young women from across India gathered in a modern Bombay hotel to compete in the Miss India pageant. They had been picked from thousands of aspiring beauty queens to vie for a much-coveted crown in a country lately gone mad for beauty contests, even as the pageants have also elicited a conservative backlash. Whatever the controversies, winning the title means instant stardom, a lucrative career path and freedom from the constraints of a patriarchal society. The 20 finalists will spend 30 days before the pageant going through a “beauty boot camp” to optimize their diction, gaits and facial expressions and help them conform to “international” standards of beauty.

Among the finalists is Ruhi Singh, from the “famous pink city” of Jaipur in northern India. The World Before Her reveals Ruhi to be anything but a dewy-eyed victim of the beauty boot camp or of pageants in general. A veteran of such contests, she submits to the beauty regime, including skin lightening, with a determination to win. Her motives certainly include making her supportive parents proud and earning lots of money. But what the crown, pride and money ultimately mean to Ruhi is this: “I think of myself as a very modern young girl and I want freedom.” For women in Ruhi’s world, a beauty pageant is a road to liberation.

Little more than 200 miles away from Bombay, in the city of Aurangabad, thousands of girls attend annual camps run by Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the largest Hindu nationalist group in India.

Durga Vahini is part of a rising militant fundamentalist movement that preaches resistance to Islam, Christianity and Western culture. The group has become a potent force in Indian life, and it does not shy away from embracing violence in the name of defending Hindus and Hindu values. At its camps for girls, to which the crew of The World Before Her gained first-time access, its young charges are taught an unusual combination of proper Hindu femininity and fighting skills.

One of the instructors at these camps is the highly committed Prachi Trivedi, a girl from a modest economic background who is at a turning point in her life. “I am a Hindu and I’ll proudly say I’m a Hindu,” she says. “We are trying to save ourselves. That is the only thing I want. . . . The Hindu movement is life for me.” She swears she is ready to die and kill in the defense of Hinduism, at the same time that camp preachers portray other religions as the work of demons. In fact, Prachi seems to prefer the fighting side of instruction and admits, “I don’t like those girlish-type girls.”             

This is where the very intensity of her commitment to Hinduism brings her into conflict with tradition. “I’m different from girls. I’m different from boys,” she ruminates. “My life is not to get married, to produce children. I have the feeling I’ve not been made by God for these things.” Her traditionalist father will have none of this. “I don’t know what she wants or doesn’t want and it’s not important,” he says. “Marriage is her duty. She has to get married and she will.” Prachi protests, but the tough-talking woman of the Durga Vahini camps seems unable to marshal the will or resources to go her own way.

In one of the film’s remarkable twists, Prachi’s deference to her father turns out to be more than a matter of traditional Hindu values. In a country that so prefers baby boys that 750,000 girls are electively aborted every year and an unknown number are killed at birth, Prachi’s father had chosen to save her and raise her as his only child. In The World Before Her, this history comes out in the context of sensational media revelations that Miss India of 2009, now a star, had been saved from infanticide only because her mother had walked out on her husband. This existential reality is shared by girls and women on both sides of the seeming divide between tradition and modernity.

One thing is for sure, as Prachi’s mother observes: “It’s a new culture; they’re not going to follow our old ways. Each generation chooses its own path.” Moving between two extremes—the modern, Westernized pursuit of beauty and fundamentalist Hindu religious values—The World Before Her creates a lively, provocative portrait of the world’s largest democracy at a critical transitional moment. It creates an equally compelling portrait of two women who hope to shape that country’s future.

“I have been going to India for nearly 15 years and the more time I spend there, the more I realize that what India does best is teach,” says director Nisha Pahuja. “It forces one to see that assumptions are never safe and nothing is simple. Sabira Merchant, one of the key pageant voices in the film, says, ‘There are two Indias.’ I would say there are many Indias, and they are doing battle with each other now, just as they always have been.

“The battle I chose to focus on is the battle between tradition and ‘modernity,’ fundamentalism and capitalism and how this plays out on the bodies of women. In some ways, what hangs in the balance is not just the future of women in this country but the very future of the country itself.”