The documentary The World Before Her is a fascinating examination of India’s struggle to figure out what to do with its young women as the country forges greater economic ties with the outside world. Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja follows the lives of young women training for their futures through very different means: a beauty pageant and a militant religious training camp.
The beauty pageant in question is Femina Miss India 2011. Pahuja’s camera follows a pair of contestants: Ankita Shorey and Ruhi Singh, whose parents also feature prominently in the narrative. The filmmaker interviews Miss India World 2009, Pooja Chopra, and her mother, who tells a moving story of divorcing her husband when he suggested ending newborn Pooja’s life because of her gender.
The other half of the narrative takes place at a Hindu nationalist boot camp for girls ages 15-25. One of the drill sergeants is 24-year-old Prachi, who feels most at home while training other girls how to fight and die for their religion. She accepts the paradox that she’s working for a movement that believes — in her zealous father’s words — “a woman is only complete after she becomes a mother,” even though Prachi herself wants no children. A female speaker at the camp says that women should be married by age eighteen, before they become too “strong-willed.”
All three of the young women are thoughtful and articulate, though Ankita and Ruhi are more hopeful for their future prospects. As odd as some aspects of pageant life (e.g. Botox and bikini contests) seem, the women choose to participate because pageants are a proven route to careers in film or modeling. Within two years of winning Miss India World in 2009, Chopra landed a lead role in a Tamil film, and shortly thereafter starred in the excellent Hindi action flick Commando: A One Man Army.
One wonders what life for a spitfire like Prachi would’ve been like had she been raised in a different city or by different parents — how her drive and determination might have been put to better use than training bubbly teens to want to shoot Pakistanis.
What stands out most in the film is how much happier the parents of the pageant contestants are with their daughters than Prachi’s father is with her, and how much freer they are in expressing their love for their children.
Both Ruhi’s parents and Pooja’s mother beam with pride at their daughters’ achievements. Their pride doesn’t stem from the place the young women finish in the contest but from the fact that their daughters are living their dreams. Ruhi’s mom mentions that her daughter’s happiness is a sign of her own success as a parent.
Contrast those parent-child relationships with that of Prachi and her father, Hemantji. Prachi knows that her father wishes he’d had a son. She’s so grateful to him for not having murdered her as an infant that she forgives him when he punches her for disobedience or when he burns her with an iron rod for lying.
From the footage shown in the film, Hemantji appears to derive no joy from his only child. The best Prachi can do is not screw up. That includes obeying her father’s orders to get married and have children, even though Prachi herself would rather teach at the camp full-time. Hemantji says that the only thing Prachi could do to make him happy is to die a martyr.