The World Before Her … (2012) dir.Nisha Pahuja … **** By Greg Klymkiw
What is the future for the young women of modern India? Is it adherence to thousands of years of subservient tradition or finding success through beauty? Is it deepening their love for the Hindu religion through rigorous paramilitary training or maintaining their ties to religion and culture while engaging in the exploitation of their sexuality? The chasm between these two polar opposites couldn't be wider and yet, as we discover in Nisha Pahuja's extraordinary and compelling documentary feature The World Before Her, the differences are often skin deep as parallel lines clearly exist beneath the surface.
All of this makes for one lollapalooza of a movie! Vibrant, incisive, penetrating and supremely entertaining, director Pahuja and her crackerjack team deliver one terrific picture - a genuine corker!
Seamlessly, and at times breathtakingly, we shift back and forth between the contestants of the Miss India Pageant training tirelessly within the walls of an urban Novotel for their shot at fame and fortune and the life of Prachi, firmly committed to a career - as she likes to call it - of serving her God, country and culture and preparing in the rural splendour of the Durgha Vahini training camp for young women.
Both groups of women must submit to the rigours of near-castigatory physical activity - albeit very different forms of it. Prachi learns the art of self defence - how to break a man's arm, how to stave off a knife thrust and turn the weapon against her opponent. The beauty contestants engage in punishing exercise regimens, not unlike the U.S. Marine-like maneuvers the Durgha Vahini women go through and are drilled in movement and precision: how to stand, how to walk. What our fundamentalists-in-training don't have to put up with are the hours of beauty makeovers - the most appalling of which are the burning sensations inflicted upon the beauty-queens-in-training during skin-lightening treatments. Ugh! As a fella, I even cringe at the thought of waxing.
For me, however, perhaps the most phenomenal footage in the entire movie are the differences in the relationships the two sets of women have with their parents. The mother and father of one beauty queen contestant are both so open, liberal, supportive and intelligent that their belief and pride in their daughter is deeply moving.
Prachi, on the other hand, is another story. Whenever her father opened his mouth my jaw kept thudding to the floor with such force and frequency, that if metaphor morphed into reality, I'd need to have major dental and periodontal surgery to restore it back into place.
Anyone who does to their kid what this guy does is an asshole. Yeah, yeah, yeah - it's a cultural thing! Big deal! Besides, a Hindu Holy Man I know had bestowed upon me the gift of an English translation of religious writings and I might be blind, but I sure don't remember anything in there like the following.
Prachi's evil clown of a father is seen sitting cross-legged, often with a smile on his face and his eyes raging with the fires of fundamentalism as he describes how he has been regularly beating his daughter for years in order to teach her right from wrong. Astoundingly, he admits that if his daughter had to engage in a Holy War and die for her religion, he'd be both happy and proud. He even infers that it would be okay in his books if his treatment was mirrored by a future husband.
When he proudly declares how he cured his daughter at age 12 from ever lying to him again, I came close to losing it completely. Daddy Dearest took a red hot iron from the coals and seared the flesh of his daughter's foot so that: (a) it would take weeks to heal and that every time she limped in pain, she'd remember how naughty it was to lie and (b) that the scar would be a constant reminder of her indiscretion.
Sadly, when Prachi is interviewed about these events, she seems totally at ease with this - going so far to admit that she prefers when he punches her to slapping her as she's able to withstand the pain from the former and not the latter. It must be all the military training she gets in the female terrorist camp.
As if I wasn't agog enough, Prachi admits that her father DESERVES to beat her because he let her live when she was born. You see, he considered murdering her as she was female, not male.
The film relates the stomach turning statistic that one million female babies in India are murdered every year due to the fact that male children are preferred. They're bread-winners. Women are, uh, parasites who need to be married off. Beyond some basic servitude, it seems they don't offer much anything else of value.
You know, I might have missed something, or maybe the English translation was off, but I really don't remember reading anything in the Hindu Holy Writings about murdering one's newborn daughter.
Prachi's story both parallels and contrasts wildly with the story of one beauty queen. Her mother was so disgusted that her husband wanted to murder their newborn daughter that she left him. The result, a beautiful, intelligent young lady who went on to claim the crown of Miss World India.
I have a few choice descriptive epithets for fathers like the aforementioned, but I'll allow my usual restraint in such matters to refrain from citing them here.
The bottom line is that The World Before Her is must-see viewing for everyone - men, women, sons, daughters - of all races, cultures, traditions and religions. My 11-year-old daughter watched the movie with me and I can't begin to express how profoundly it affected and touched her.
Even more extraordinary were her observations that: (a) the beauty pageant contestants were also beholden to men the way the "old-fashioned" women were and (b) that both sets of women were making their own choices in spite of being in a world where others want to make choices for them.
You know, I couldn't have said it better myself.
"The World Before Her" is playing Wed, May 2 7:00 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 5 9:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 and Sun, May 6 11:00 AM at the Isabel Bader Theatre during Toronto's Hot Docs 2012. For tickets, visits the Hot Docs website HERE.