Girl Soldiers

The World Before Her
 (Canada, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Nisha Pahuja

Miss India 2009 Pooja Chopra Poses During a Photoshoot
What must a girl do for Mother India? The options are limited for women in such a patriarchal country, but The World Before Her presents India as a nation at a crossroads. By focussing on two young women, one a rising beauty queen and the other an emerging fundamentalist, The World Before Her captures both the new and the old India. Writer/director Nisha Pahuja takes a brave, even-handed approach and boldly lets viewers see for themselves the liminal place that women’s rights hold in some corners of this rapidly changing world.

The early title cards of The World Before Her explain that India holds few options for women. They can be wives and mothers, or perhaps prostitutes as suggested by the images of women walking the streets. Few professions offer equal ground for men and women in India. One of the few exceptions, the film explains, is the field of modelling and cosmetics. The film centres on the preparations for the Miss World India beauty pageant and all the women who strut their stuff in hopes of winning a title that will land them lucrative contracts. Seen mainly through the eyes of Ruhi, a beauty pageant bridesmaid from Jaipur, the Miss World India is an all-or-nothing shot at freedom. As Ruhi and some of the other participants explain, the pageant is like a symbol for the new India. The pageant celebrates women, unlike the traditional norms of Indian culture that put them in a secondary role.

However, the pageant becomes a target for charges of the westernization or corruption of India. More traditionally minded citizens see the competition as a disgraceful spectacle of the body. The contestants undergo rigorous training and beautification, which includes a skin-whitening process. The girls say that it makes them feel confident and beautiful, but it also gives some credence to the fears explained in the second thread of the film.
Camp Leader Prachi addresses a group of girls
The other storyline of The World Before Her follows a twenty-four year old woman named Prachi, who proudly endorses conservative views on that oppose western influence. The film shows Prachi instructing young girls at the camps of Durgha Vahini, the women’s wing of the Hindu militant fundamentalist movement. The Durgha Vahini camp is like a mix of etiquette school and terrorist training camp. The girls learn the roles and expectations of a traditional Hindu woman, but they learn how to aim and shoot a rifle as well.

The access to the Durgha Vahini camp is most impressive. An unprecedented feat for a film crew, The World Before Her offers the first footage ever shot in the camp, and the observational behind-the-scenes material reveals a startling militant movement fighting against change. Prachi, too, shows hostility to the whitewashed, curvaceous image of the new Indian woman and she proudly tells Pahuja that she would take up arms to defend Hindu values.

Spliced side by side, the impressive juxtapositions of The World Before Her shows both women—and perhaps both Indias—fighting a similar force. The women in the Miss World India pageant are still seen as passive, brainless bodies. One particular sequence observes the contestants participating in a bizarre photo-shoot in which the pageant director has them sashay along the walkway in sac. All he wants to see are their legs, he says, so he covers their torsos and faces. Miss World India looks like a runway show for the Ku Klux Klan, or more aptly like a wackily surreal allegory from a Salman Rushdie novel. Even though the contestants praise the confidence that the pageant gives them, Pahuja shows them playing another subordinate role.

Prachi, on the other hand, implores the young girls at her camp to uphold tradition, but she too fights against the expectations of a patriarchal society. Prachi reveals to the camera that she has no desire to become a wife and mother. She wants to devote her life to Hindu fundamentalism, but her father insists that she is good only for raising children and serving dinner. He even raises her hand to her when she disobeys. Prachi therefore upholds values that beat her down.

Prachi’s rationale for accepting her father’s beatings, however, offers an upsetting point that unites the two women in the film. Prachi explains that she takes the beatings because she owes her father for her life. Most fathers, she says, would rather kill a baby girl, so her life is forever in his debt. Ruhi likewise explains that her mother left her father because he told her to kill their daughter rather than raise her. Both girls, then, faced a similar battle in spite of their different worldviews.

Pahuja judges neither girl, but instead allows the two storylines to play off one another. The sober style of the film grants The World Before Her a sense of universality, and asks how such subjugation exists when so much else in the world is marked by progress. A compelling and revealing film, The World Before Her shows two cultures that are wholly incompatible and neither outlook seems promising when either woman surveys the world before her.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)  
The World Before Her plays in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Tuesday, October 23rd.