Hot Docs Film Review: The World Before Her

14yr old Chinmayee at Durga Camp Graduation

The film opens with the following lines: “It has been said that India is a golden bird. But people are forgetting our history.  We are becoming modern…”.  This is our introduction to Hindu extremist Prachi, a worker at the Durga Vahini camp.  Next comes a direct contrast with the words of Ruhi, one of the 20 handpicked contestants of the Miss India pageant: “We as a country should move forward … we have to change, we have to change our mentality.  As much as I love and respect my culture, I think of myself as a very modern young girl and I want freedom”.  Thus, the binary between modern and traditional is established.  Smooth transitions take us from one world of Indian culture to the other to create a wonderfully orchestrated film on the opposing views in India.

Directed by Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, The World Before Her beautifully contrasts the ideologies of Hindu extremists at the Durga Vahini camp and pageant contestants for Miss India.  It is an insightful look into both ideals: old India, grounded in roots, and new India, modernized and designated Western.

Not only do we get to learn the values of Prachi and Ruhi, but we are also introduced to their parents to connect the circulation of ideas within a family.  It invites the crossover between public and private with such an enlightening scope of both strict patriarchal familial values and liberal views.  Moreover, we are introduced into the practices of both ideologies: the self-defense rituals, songs and prayers sessions, and training of the Durga Vahini camp as well as the pampering, skin-whitening treatments, exercise routines, and catwalk structures of the pageant contestants.

Miss India contestants during swimsuit round

In addition to interviews, disturbing found footage show members of the extremist group rioting, vandalizing, and beating women for either being with a man or for having a drink.  One short clip shows the remains of a vehicle where one Australian missionary was burned alive with his two sons by an angry mob.  The images are powerful and self-spoken.

Although the film focuses on the specifics of Indian culture, what the film hinges on is the question of identity: identity of the individuals within the film and identity of a culture that is at odds with itself.  It is an issue that is relevant when you live in city such as Toronto where our own definition of culture has become quite complex with our multitude of individual ethnic groups.  In addition, the debate over external beauty is constantly being scrutinized by the public through images in the media in our own culture.  The separation between interior beauty and exterior beauty  links back to larger issues and questions over what is deemed moral.  These issues are largely at play within the questioning of modern Indian in such cases as the Miss India pageant and whether or not it degrades women through the judgment of external beauty.  What The World Before Her offers is invitation into the very complex lives of young women in India.

The World Before Her will be screened at this year’s Hot Docs. For more information visit their website. You can also check out the film’s Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. Watch the trailer below:


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