Films / World Before Her, The
Canada | Documentary Feature | 2012 | 91 min | Website
Director: Nisha Pahuja
Sponsor: The Caroline Baird Crichfield Fund
Awards: Best World Documentary-Tribeca Film Festival; Best Canadian Feature-Hot Docs
Film Source: Storyline Entertainment
English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati w/English subtitles
Sure to be one of VTIFF’s most talked-about films, the award-winning The World Before Her by documentarian Nisha Pahuja dramatizes the tension between traditional and modern views of Indian women as they clash in two very different realms: the Miss India pageant and Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the fundamentalist Hindu movement. With exclusive access to both arenas, Pahuja (who was born in India, but raised in Toronto) creates a riveting portrait of old and new India with surprising parallels. – S.G
Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja had been going to India for nearly 15 years when she set out to make a film about the battles going on between tradition and modernity, fundamentalism and capitalism, and how they play out on the bodies of women. While India is touted as the world’s largest democracy, the fact that this country is so obsessed with sons that it aborts 750,000 girls every year cannot be ignored. This film is one indication that the future of India is indeed tied to the future of its women. Unfortunately, as woman demand to be heard, the violence against them has increased.
Initially Pahuja focused on a film about the Miss India beauty pageant, which for many girls in a country like India has represented personal freedom beyond money and fame. While considered passé in much of the western world, beauty pageants in India are, ironically, one of the country’s obsessions. In another twist, beauty pageants are opposed by fundamentalists on the one hand and feminists on the other.
In the course of making this, her third film, Nisha lived half time in Bombay and as a result had the opportunity to also make inroads into the world of Hindu fundamentalism. She discovered the ultra militant, fundamentalist Durga Vahini (sometimes called India’s Taliban) camps that few people outside the country had ever heard of and no camera crew had ever been given access to. Durga Vahini is a wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and a female counterpart of the militant Hindu organization, Bajrang Dal. It took the filmmaker nearly two years to get inside the camp.
While there are disturbing and shocking sequences shot behind the scenes in both the beauty pageant and the camp, filmmaker Pahuja remarked, “The Miss India pageant empowers women by default and its goal is to make money. With Durga Vahini, it’s an intention. They want to empower these women but also tell them that they have to get married, have children and don’t need to work. It’s such a bizarre contradiction.” These two worlds—the beauty pageant and the fundamentalist camp—define the boundaries in a complex map that young woman in India today must navigate in order to find the path that freedom represents for them. -C.C.