There are millions of Indias within our country and Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her captivates us with this detail. Training her camera on a beauty factory, where contestants go in to be polished so one can become the next Miss India, and then on a Durga Vahini camp where girls are coached by Hindu extremists, Pahuja shows us a disturbing portrait of the modern Indian woman.
On the one hand, we see beauty contestants dreaming of fame, willing to suffer Botox injections, skin-whitening treatments, and being paraded around wearing sacks over their heads so their naked legs can be judged. This pales before the Durga Vahini camp where girls as young as 13 are taught to shoot rifles and wake up at 5 am to chant hate mantras against Muslims and Christians so they are ready to be martyrs in a war to reclaim India and make it fully Hindu.
Pahuja includes several voices in this hard-hitting documentary, but closely follows two subjects – Jaipur girl Ruhi Singh, who gives the beauty pageant everything she’s got, and Durga Vahini camp addict Prachi Trivedi, whose vehement statements are shocking, yet she ends up as surprisingly vulnerable. Prachi describes herself as “a boy and girl, both” and despite her aggression, seems powerless before her Hindu nationalist father’s will to marry her off. Their verbal exchanges often form the most fascinating bits of this incisive film.
The strength in Pahuja’s documentary lies in its non-judgmental tone, even in moments like when Prachi’s father recounts the time he branded her with a hot iron rod as punishment for lying. The pivotal part comes as former Miss India Pooja Chopra and her mother talk of how she was almost killed at birth because her father didn’t want another girl child. It was sweet justice, therefore, when Pooja won the crown before her beaming mother.
Importantly though, Pahuja communicates how two kinds of women blindly seek empowerment in their own ways. And yet, they are waylaid by a feudal system. The World Before Her is a powerful documentary and I strongly recommend that you see it – this is the kind of cinema that will leave you shaken and stirred.

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