THE WORLD BEFORE HER: A look at two very different paths that women may take

Film: “The World Before Her”; Featuring: Ruhl Singh, Prachi Trivedi; Director: Nisha Pahuja; Rating: ****

JAY STONE
POSTMEDIA NEWS

What does it mean to be a woman in India? That’s the question that hangs over the deceptively simple documentary The World Before Her, a look at two very different paths that women may take. Both seem devastating, but both are also sweeter than the alternative as presented by one young woman who says she respects her father because “he has given me birth, and knowing I am a girl child, he is letting me live.”

Canadian director Nisha Pahuja (Bollywood Bound) concentrates on two extremes of life. At one end is Ruhl Singh, a beautiful young woman who is one of 20 contestants in the Miss India beauty pageant. Self-possessed and confident, she understands the tawdry, sometimes lurid, aspects of the enterprise – the women have Botox injections to make their faces more “harmonious” and acidic compounds brushed on their skin to whiten it. They walk in bikinis and pose for sexy pictures for the newspapers. In one particularly devastating scene, the festival organizer has them bare only their legs so he won’t be distracted by the rest of their bodies: they walk a runway covered in white sacks with holes cut out for their eyes.

It’s all part of the Westernization of an old society, but it represents a rare chance for success and independence. A former Miss India winner, Pooja Chopra, is a particular success story: she was raised by a mother who walked out on her husband when he demanded the girl baby be killed (the film says 750,000 female fetuses a year are aborted, and an unknown number of girls are killed at birth.)

The other extreme is represented by a Durga Vahini camp, part of a right-wing movement of Hindu extremists who blame Muslims and Christians for diluting their religion. There, a teenager named Prachi Trivedi takes part in the exercises – learning martial arts, riflery, and the teaching that women are born to marry and have children. “Girls are educated but their heads are in the clouds,” a teacher tells them. “Erase these thoughts from your mind.”

Prachi is aggressively unglamorous – she thinks of herself as part boy and part girl – but her path to nationalism is also complicated. She is willing to die for “Mother India,” but her father demands that she follows a more traditional path. She is to marry and have children. “The obligation of girls is something God designed,” he says.

The World Before Her moves smoothly back and forth between the two training regimens – makeup and bikinis for one group, lessons in fundamentalist religion for the other – and Pahuja weaves in scenes of religious fighting throughout the country, as well as attacks by “Hindu Taliban” groups of men who beat women for being in bars, or for drinking alcohol.

It’s frightening, but the alternative hardly seems more palatable. “These girls have no honour,” says Prachi’s father as the family watches the Miss India pageant on TV: women answering silly questions with shallow answers, then walking around in their evening dresses, pouting seductively for a worldwide audience of a billion.

By the end of The World Before Her, we understand how high the stakes are, not just for Ruhl and the others, but for the girls in the audience who are fighting to abolish such images for a society that holds them in check. There are no easy answers here, just heartbreak.





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