The World Before Her: Making Indian Women

A review of The World Before Her, now showing in the Tribeca Film Festival.

by Natasha Raheja

 The opening sequence of director Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her cuts sharply between salwar kameez and swimsuits, Marathi and English, Bombay and Aurangabad, stilettos and chappals, open hair and plaits, bhangra beats and nationalistic hymns, saffron and skin. At first glance, these images serve to contrast tradition and modernity. As the film proceeds, though, Pahuja seems to be weaving a more subtle story as she tracks the process of two different camps for young Indian women: the month long “beauty boot camp” for the twenty Miss India Pageant finalists, who are taught to walk, to speak, to dress, to display themselves for stage and cameras; and the Hindu nationalist Durga Vahini camp for adolescent girls, who are likewise trained but according to a quite different set of norms. The film asks, how are both paradigms in all of their glory equally dignifying and disempowering for the women they subsume?  Does modernity occur respectively or irrespective of tradition?

In its exploration of these questions, the film enters two ostensibly opposed worlds that culminate in beauty pageants and supermodels on the one hand and political rallies and powerful female purveyors of Hindutva (a concept meaning loosely “Hinduness” and championed by various Hindu nationalist organizations) on the other.  One set of women submit to botoxing, skin bleaching and instructions for losing weight and fitting into bikinis, while the other set, also upon command, run in fields in preparation for the full defense of their religion against foreigners, Christians and Muslims—by violence if necessary—and submit to vicious exhortations about the false promises of careers and feminism. The camps emerge as comparable institutionalized modes for the training and cultivating of young Indian women as competent subjects, despite the differences in how that subjecthood is defined. Continue Reading →