Docurama Festival 2013
By Don Simpson | May 12, 2013
Director: Nisha Pahuja
You might assume that the “her” in the title of Nisha Pahuja’s documentary refers to the female subjects, but it could also refer to the country of India. The World Before Her presents us with an Indian nation that is at a crossroads, stuck with the decision to either follow the path of the ever-expanding western world and modernize or remain firmly grounded in its traditional ways. It is the classic dilemma of choosing between the old world and the new world. Most of the world had presumably already chosen their path before India got to this point, but now the young people of India are trying to force their country to make a decision.
Pahuja’s film looks at two opposing extremes of this debate: Miss India contestants and Durga Vahini students. The Miss India contestants crave a modernized India in which women can achieve financial independence from the male-dominated society. Durga Vahini is a Hindu nationalist group that teaches girls discipline, strength and the continuance of Hindu traditions. While the Miss India contestants seem intelligent and strong-willed, they are not being trained like the Durga Vahini students to use guns. With one side just wanting the freedom to think for themselves and the other side willing to resort to violence, if push comes to shove — as it seems it might — there is probably only one possible outcome.
Trying to remain unbiased, The World Before Her suggests that both sides are more similar than they believe. Sure, they may not agree on a dress code for women, but the Durga Vahini students and Miss India contestants are both promoting the empowerment of women. The only difference is that Durga Vahini also supports a government and religion that is oppressive towards women — a conflict that a Durga Vahini drill sergeant seems to have a difficult time reconciling.
While in the United States we have Christian zealots (mostly white males) trying to control women’s reproductive rights, the polarized hatred in The World Before Her is not nearly as foreign as it should seem. India and the United States may have national religions infused in their governments to different extremes, but both countries have politicians who are forcing their religious ideologies upon their constituents. So, as The World Before Her questions the role of women in India, we can see some similarities within our own country. In other words, the U.S. might not be as far ahead of India as the world believes. We have our own tunnel-visioned religious fanatics who are willing to resort to violence in order to make the entire U.S. abide by their religious beliefs. Of course in the U.S., women’s rights are more advanced than in India. Women may not yet earn equal pay in the U.S., but there is significantly more opportunity for women to have financial independence. (In India, the only careers that pay enough to allow women to become financially independent are the beauty and entertainment industries.)
What is most impressive with The World Before Her is Pahuja’s ability to embed herself and her crew into both camps. While I would presume that Miss India and Durga Vahini would both be fairly secretive and protective of their registrants, it does make sense that they feel the need for some positive publicity. Miss India strives to convince the people of India of the competition’s merits, while Durga Vahini wants to convince the western world that it is not a terrorist organization. Though Pahuja does an admirable job of remaining as impartial as possible, the footage of Durga Vahini students shooting rifles and professing their hatred of Christians and Muslims is probably not going to change the western world’s perspective of their camps (though representatives of Durga Vahini may see it as good propaganda for recruitment).
As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl” — The World Before Her has plenty of both, so I guess that makes it more than just a movie. The World Before Her is an extremely powerful film that promises to become a cornerstone in worldwide equal rights movements. Hopefully, as the opposing sides of this issue watch The World Before Her it will affect them. Best case scenario, Pahuja’s film will open the doors to discussion and hopefully tone down the ferocity of Durga Vahini and other Hindu extremists in India. I don’t think I will ever wrap my head around the concept of why religious zealots believe it is within their rights to force others to abide by their ideologies; maybe The World Before Her will convince them that the two sides can peacefully coexist, they just need to let each other be whoever they want to be.