“The World Before Her” is an outstanding documentary detailing the crossroads of modernity and traditionalism in India. Canadian documentarian Nisha Pahuja follows two groups of women– one preparing for the Miss India beauty pageant, and the other being trained at a quasi-military Hindu nationalist camp for girls.
The beauty pageant contestants are subjected to 30 days of botox, skin lightening treatments, body-toning aerobics and “hot leg contests.” The girls at the Hindu camp are taught to commando crawl, shoot guns, and are drilled on the importance of being married by age 18 “because by age 25, women are unmanageable.”
I had not known this, but the existence of beauty pageants in India has long been a contentious issue, with traditionalists convinced that the trojan horse of such past times will usher in the decay of Hindu culture and human dignity. As Prachi Trivedi, the hard nosed daughter of a camp leader eloquently states: “Egyptians, Romans, they are history now. It’s going to happen with us. So we are trying to save ourselves. That is the only thing I want, nothing else.”
I was gobsmacked by how much “work” the pageant contestants– who are all stunningly and naturally beautiful– have done in preparation to capture the crown. The skin lightening chemicals are painful to endure (one girl is seen writhing on the table), and the net result is a greenish, unnaturally pale complexion that makes the girls look seasick. And what 19 year old, especially an unbelievably beautiful 19 year old, needs botox? So I felt the girls actually looked less attractive after they washed out their complexions and plumped up their lips. But my understanding is that skin whitening is all the rage in India. Indeed, in “Enlighten Up,” the laughing guru had that same unnatural, corpse-like paleness to him.
The film opens on an upbeat note, and the comparison between the nationalist camp and the pampered beauty queens makes the documentary temporarily lean toward fluff piece, until 2009 Miss India and her mother describe how she narrowly escaped infanticide at birth. Miss India’s mother was given two choices by her husband: surrender the newborn daughter to an orphanage, or kill her.
What is startling about this is that the contestants draw from middle class, urban and suburban families. I had no idea abandoning and murdering baby girls was still practiced in urban, educated settings. I always assumed this sort of thing took place in backwoods villages by families with no education or means. I have seen pictures from Pakistani morgues showing rows of sheet-bundled infant corpses neatly lined up on metal tables, all of them baby girls killed at birth, their bodies discarded like trash.
At this point in the film, the images of beautiful women poised on display suddenly take on a chilling and haunting tenor. As the mother of six daughters, I found myself, while watching this film, very grateful to live in a society that does not routinely pressure women to abort, abandon, or kill baby girls. This is not to say that we don’t have our own gender hopes and disappointments; I know for a fact my own parents were bitterly disappointed when I came into the world a girl, as they had desperately wanted a son. But it would be virtually unheard of, in mainstream American society, for a child to be abandoned solely for her gender. Yet I doubt even the most tolerant and urbane Indian husband would endure six consecutive daughters (there were actually seven, if you count the one I lost).
If you’re a documentary hound like me, you know that the topic of a well done documentary is of little importance; it’s how the subject matter is handled that makes or breaks a documentary film. “The World Before Her” is beautifully filmed, expertly handled, and its fascinating characters shine unfiltered from the screen. So even if you have no interest in Hindu nationalism or beauty pageants, Nisha Pahuja’s offering comes highly recommended.