Pageant participants put a new meaning to ‘burkini’ as each struts down a runway in a skimpy denim bottom as a white sheet covers their face with just slits for eyes.
‘Ask for milk and we shall give you rice pudding, ask for Kashmir and we shall tear you apart,’ shout young girls in saffron with big smiles and bright eyes.
A mother rejoices at her daughter’s Miss India win, after having saved her from female infanticide.
Directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, The World Before Her is an exemplary piece of narrative nonfiction that explores the dualities that women inhabit in the world today. Beyond the Taylor Swift delineations – “she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts” – the characters in this India-based documentary film grapple with their womanhood in two vastly different settings; the national Miss India pageant and a right-wing Hindu group’s training camp for young girls.
What does it mean to identify as a woman in today’s society? The film tells us that we have few options after the systems of tradition, patriarchy, modernity, capitalism, religion, and politics have had their way with us. In the extreme worlds the film occupies, women chase after dreams that actually live out fantasies of men, under rules created by men. You begin to wonder: Are women mere participants of a world created for men, by men?
With the careful back-and-forth editing of the two worlds, Pahuja retreats from judgement and allows us to make our own conclusions about what we see. And what we see are young Indian women undergoing a personal transformation as the camera rolls, as a young democracy grows into its own at the advent of the 21st century.
In a brilliant inception moment towards the end of the film, we see right-wing youth leader Prachi and her family watching the Miss India pageant on television. There is disgust but also curiosity about a parallel world. It gave me hope.