The winner of Hot Docs’ Best Canadian Feature award, granted just two weeks after it snagged top doc honours at Tribeca, Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her is a fearless and intricately structured portrait of a nation split down the middle. The film sets out to explore women’s uneasy place in an increasingly modernized and globally inflected but still traditional India by observing how a pair of institutions go about raising girls, and to what end. Pahuja’s riskiest and ultimately smartest move is to juxtapose the personality-making rituals of the Miss India pageant with a Hindu nationalist training camp that prepares young girls to marry young, obey, and take up arms against Muslim and Christian neighbours, should the good fight of a united Hindu nation come to their doorsteps.
Her access to both groups is astonishing. More importantly, in each group Pahuja focuses not on a cheerleader but on a prickly spokesperson, riven by her devotion to a cause that suppresses women even as it advances them. In the fundamentalist camp, for instance, we hone in on Prachi, a militant youth leader who preaches women’s deference to men even as she struggles against her abusive father to devote her life not to a husband but to the movement. To his flat assertion that she’ll marry, she demurs that she’ll be a “question mark,” but he won’t have it, on the principle that he’s made her, and “the product has to be perfect in every sense.” It doesn’t take much to see how this heated argument about reproduction, form, and the future is acted out on a different stage in the beauty pageant, where Indian women are manufactured into Botoxed, skin-whitened doppelgangers of both themselves and western celebrities – uncanny images of imitation as progress. Yet, as a title card early on points out, the beauty industry is one of the few venues in which modern Indian women can be competitive earners on the global stage. This is an impossible situation, and Pahuja refuses to map an escape route, leaving us with Prachi’s dilemma of a world before her with no firm ground to stand on. ***1/2/****