Director: Nisha Pahuja
Nisha Pahuja had a brilliant idea. She wanted to tell the story of young Indian women — their aspirations, influences. One story that’s been told many times before, and one that isn’t very well known. The World Before Her tells the story of Indian girls being trained and groomed and brain-washed by two organisations — one for commercial reasons, and the other down-right communal. Both are in Maharashtra.
On one hand is a shortlisted contingent of 20 girls vying for the title of Miss India, on the other is a boot camp for girls organised in Aurangabad by Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
For 30 days the Miss India contestants are kept in a posh hotel, get experts to groom them, smooth out their laugh-lines, small-town awkwardness and dehati diction, all for the pursuit of the crown.
The Durga Vahini camp is focused on drilling Hindu nationalism into the girls. There’s morning havan, Vedic studies, physical and weapons training.
In both these camps, girls find their identity and start internalising it in a truly scary way.
The World Before Her toggles between these two worlds, talking to the girls, but focusing on two from each world to dig deeper. There’s Durga Vahini trainer Prachi whose role model is Sadhvi Pragya, who was arrested in the 2008 Malegaon blasts, and Pooja Chopra, Miss India 2009. Both girls are scarred by their fathers in eerily similar ways. One father wanted to kill his daughter for being a girl, the other’s punished her with a burning iron rod for lying.
Then there is Ruhi Singh from Jaipur, who is sharply focused on the crown, and little Chinmayee, who is excited about this militant training that, she admits, is rewiring her brain in a way she had never thought possible.
In Durga Vahini camp the girls are told not to talk of equality with men, because they are not equal. They are told to shot copying Western girls and stop all this nonsense about career. Motherhood alone will make them complete. But, of course, they must be ready and equipped to defend the country’s and their own honour when barbaric hordes from across the border come charging. This isn’t just a distant possibility, but is peddled as if it’s imminent, sooner than later. Naturally, they are pitted against the girls who are brazenly corrupting Indian sanskriti. Who, incidentally, have no time to think of all this politics because, it’s like, so regressive. And in any case, they have to focus on Botox sessions, skin whitening, bikini rounds (now off-camera because of protests), and impressing Marc Robinson, a former model, with their legs. Mr Robinson has devised a Taliban-inspired technique to pick the best pair of legs. You have to watch the film to believe it. It’s deeply disturbing.
One camp is manufacturing the perfect body to endorse their perfect-making products in tubes and jars; the other is drilling hatred — for Muslims, Christians, Mahatma Gandhi and, of course, Pakistan — to benefit their political aspirations and brethren.
Both are mind-altering, both cater to men and keep the women as second-class citizens. Except that one is blatantly against the country’s Constitution, while the other given women economic power.
I find beauty contests offensive and boring. They are no different from the auction of thoroughbreds, except that they go after stallions, while here fillies are paraded. The only thing that makes then tolerable is that they given women some power, and independence.
As a journalistic account, The World Before Her makes several revelations that are shocking. It has new information, insight, even some layers. It has the material, but it doesn’t know what to do with it.
As cinema it is absolutely flat. Talking heads talk and they are often repetitive. Director Nisha Pahuja seems to have no sense of the visual medium that is cinema and that makes her rather informative film boring very soon.