Women and India are the ostensible subjects of “The World Before Her,” but Nisha Pahuja’s docu hangs a big, fat question mark over the future of humankind itself. Will the world grow increasingly Westernized and, some would say, licentious, a la the Miss India competition chronicled in the film? Or will fundamentalist zealotry turn back the clock on individual freedom, as per the extreme Hindus who provide the film’s counterweight? Walking a tightrope over a vat of hot-button topics, and boasting plenty of sex appeal with its beauty contestants, this Tribeca prizewinner could well break out of the festival ghetto.
Doing a fairly good job of not taking sides while viewing both with a jaundiced eye, Pahuja (“Diamond Road,” “Bollywood Bound”) focuses on two teenage girls in two very different parts of India. Ruhi Singh, a rural beauty who stands a fairly good chance of becoming Miss India, has drunk the beauty-contest Kool-Aid; Prachi Trivedi is a young Hindu fundamentalist who works and teaches at a camp run by Durga Vahini, the women’s branch of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, commonly referred to as the “Hindu Taliban.”
Trivedi and Singh never meet in the film; nor do their personal worlds collide. But the contradictions inherent in both are explored to an enlightening and enlightened degree through interviews, newscasts and footage inside the Durga Vahini camp, to which Pahuja was apparently the first filmmaker permitted access.
There’s no question the Miss India contest is vapid, exploitative and degrading; at one point, organizer Marc Robinson, in order to better judge the shapeliness of his contestants’ legs, has them parade up and down the runway covered in linen sacks, with only their limbs exposed. Equally ignorant but far more dangerous matters are recorded at Durga Vahini, where campers are indoctrinated into a culture of violence, religious zealotry and paranoia. “We’ll never let them take our India,” one girl defiantly tells the cameras. How “her” India is being taken is very, very vague, but “they,” quite clearly, are Muslims and Christians.
The contrasts in “The World Before Her” certainly work in its favor, and Pahuja’s balancing act is an accomplished one. At Durga Vahini, life is grim, militaristic and scary. Conversely, the Miss India pageant is a hotbed of glamour populated by what have to be some of the world’s most beautiful women. The climactic fireworks and glitz are exciting, as are the scenes of preparation and rehearsals. There’s a degree of black humor, too, in the litany of banalities parroted by the beauty contestants, and even the rote hatred of the young militants.
The docu draws a strong contrast between its two principal subjects: Singh is adorable; Trivedi is not. Singh expects that marriage may be in her future; Trivedi, who describes herself as not quite girl, not quite boy, is resigned to a fate her fundamentalist family can’t envision. “Marriage is her duty,” says her father, who talks often of values and occasionally beats his daughter.
What the girls have in common, which Pahuja makes abundantly clear without hammering the audience over the head, are belief systems that claim to liberate them while doing exactly the opposite. Singh is virtually clueless about this, but Trivedi gets it. In what may be the film’s most devastating scene, she says she knows that she’s fighting for a system that would enslave her, but what can she do? After all, she’s only a woman.
Singh and Trivedi have something else in common: As girls, the doc suggests they might easily have been killed in infancy in a system that tacitly allows such a fate. While much of “The World Before Her” speaks to global womanhood, other aspects are more specific to India, but that’s what gives the film much of its life and spark.
Tech credits are tops, notably David Kazala’s editing.