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Miss India pageant documentary a study in contradictions

The World Before Her chronicles the clash between a modern India and fundamentalist Hindu religious values

TORONTO, ON, Mar. 15, 2013/ Troy Media/ – On March 24, the Miss India pageant will be seen by close to one billion television viewers worldwide. It is an incredibly popular spectacle: glamorous, vibrant, and sexy. It is also the target of vigorous protest and scorn.
Two years ago, the pageant was filmed by Canadian director Nisha Pahuja and her crew. The resulting documentary is The World Before Her, a powerful film that continues to make waves almost a year after its world premiere.
When Pahuja first conceived of this documentary, she imagined that it would focus squarely on the Miss India pageant. Following the 20 competitors, it would explore the individual women’s aspirations and the larger changes India is undergoing. That would have been a fascinating film in itself. But, luckily for viewers, the film that emerged is about so much more.
In a recent phone interview, Pahuja said that as she learned more about the Miss India pageant and the opposition to it she “realized the film was about nationalism and how women’s bodies were being used to create different ideas of what India should be.”
The final film, then, is about the clash between two extreme factions, each fighting for its very specific ideal of womanhood. On one side are the Miss India competitors, symbolizing a modern India – one of capitalism and globalization. And on the other are the members of the women’s organization Durga Vahini, symbolizing a traditional India – one of fundamentalist Hindu religious values.
Both sides are well represented by compellingly human subjects: articulate, sympathetic, and flawed. In Bombay, we meet several women who are competing for the title of Miss India, including Ruhi, who is focused, optimistic, and beautiful. In Aurangabad, we meet Prachi, who is fierce, determined, and smart. While these two sides never encounter one another on screen, their ideological fight is the explicit tension in the film.
At first, I felt that both Ruhi and Prachi were feminists in their own right and that the sides they personified simply had different ideas of how women’s equality is best achieved. When I saw the Miss India contestants wearing bikinis, short shorts, and glitzy evening gowns, I initially believed – as it seems they do – that these garments were evidence of women’s freedom in modern India. Then, when I saw Prachi wearing traditional garb but exhibiting an uncompromising strength of character and certainty of belief, I began to wonder if hers was the demonstration of true freedom.
As the film unfolds, we go much deeper than these surface impressions. We see the Miss India contestants at beauty boot camp, where they spend a month posing in photo shoots, getting Botox injections, and attending lectures on grooming practices. And we see the girls and women in Durga Vahini’s militant training camp, where they are taught to follow orders, eschew education, and prepare for marriage (not to mention shoot rifles and break Christian and Muslim collarbones).
Slowly, it becomes clear that these two sides aren’t that different. “These women who inhabit two seemingly opposite worlds – are a mirror,” says Pahuja. “And I wanted to hold up that mirror and have everyone recognize themselves in it.” We see that the two are simply reflections of one another. These women are on two different paths within the same big cage: a cage created by men’s unfair and unobtainable ideals of womanhood.
Although this became clear over the course of the film, little else did. The more I watched, the less I understood. This experience – which Pahuja says is common for many viewers – is patterned on her experience while making the film. “At every moment when I thought I’d figured someone or something out there would be a turn and I’d realize I hadn’t solved anything. One day it dawned on me, ‘the enigma is the point of the film.’” This wasn’t the case only for the subjects of the film, but also for India itself: “At every stage, you think you have it figured out and yet you don’t. Because that’s India. It’s constantly contradicting itself. There are no easy answers here, only conflict and a country trying to figure out what it’s going to be.”
It’s this conflict, this country, and Pahuja’s skilful and unwavering depiction of both that make The World Before Her such a compelling film.
Title: The World Before Her
Director: Nisha Pahuja
Producers: Ed Barreveld, Cornelia Principe, and Nisha Pahuja
Production Company: Storyline Entertainment
Running Time: 90 minutes
Where to see the doc: In various film festivals and on iTunes
Troy Media Columnist Chanda Chevannes is a documentary filmmaker, writer, and member of the Documentary Organization of Canada. Her latest film is Living Downstream, an award-winning documentary about the links between cancer and environment.


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