If what you may have heard about Nisha Pahuja’s heart-stirring and brain-stirring film makes you think “Oh, that’s a doc about India—I’ll check it out when I’m in a multi-culti mood,” then please stop right there. I say that because The World Before Her is about social and political forces that are at play in many nations, including the U.S. And, oh, yeah: it’s also the most riveting film about gender I’ve seen in a looooong time. That it happens to be set in India is beside the point.
All right, so that’s somewhat of an exaggeration. Fundamentalist Hinduism and the Miss India pageant do provide the twin narrative pillars, with alternating perspectives tied to two young women involved in each respectively. Prachi Trivedi is upfront about everything, to the point of being disarming. “I hate Gandhi,” she announces at one point. Ruhi Singh, meanwhile, is extremely articulate—as are some of the other pageant contestants—about the new freedoms enjoyed by Indian women, the role of “westernization,” and so on. You might feel sad that beauty pageants apparently represent such a key vehicle for female self-actualization, but from the social context we witness in the film, they are downright progressive. That context, by the way, is one in which we see footage (disturbing but not too graphic) of women being attacked by certain traditionalists for simply being seen with a man or drinking alcohol.
Of course the men who engage in such violence for modesty’s sake can be contrasted with those whose recent acts of rape have shocked the world. Although the latter is not covered in the film, it’s that schizo juxtaposition of sexual and anti-sexual violence that revealingly speak to common roots in misogyny. The value of The World Before Her, though, is that it focuses on women as subjects, not objects, and so Prachi’s status as a proud female is complicated by her disdain for her westernized peers (“I’m different from girls,” she confides. “I’m different from boys.”) In fact, her attraction to violence as a way of maintaining what she feels are time-honored Hindu mores, including those related to gender roles, superficially recalls the “strong women vs. violent women” conundrum I’ve posted about previously.
Still not convinced about the universality of the central themes here? That’s all right. If you check out the trailer you may get a better sense of what I’m talking about…
Need a bit more? Well, you’ll just have to seek out a screening. You can use this guide to find a nearby theater, or you can request a screening via Tugg. And bring a teen or college-aged person with you if you can. I think they’ll find the content highly relatable. After all, The World Before Her is largely about the search for freedom and the search for meaning—pursuits that, arguably, occupy young people in all cultures—and how they are co-opted by larger groups and other agendas… whether these be religious extremists or commercial interests that treat sexuality as just one commodity for sale.