The World Before Her tells the tale of two Indias

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A documentary by Nisha Pahuja. In Hindi and English with English subtitles. Rated PG. Opens Friday, December 7, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

Indo-Canadian director Nisha Pahuja’s documentary at first comes off as a straightforward story about the rise of beauty pageants in India and the Hindu fundamentalists who protest them. To illustrate the two worlds, she alternates between two women. In the countryside, the grim, unfeminine Prachi runs militaristic boot camps for the female arm of Hindu fundamentalists; in big-city Mumbai, Ruhi struts in bikinis to try and win the Miss India title and her (and her parents’) ticket out of poverty. Early on, both seem to see their pursuits as empowering and freeing.

But revealing footage and energetic editing prove that the tale’s two Indias aren’t so far apart. Ultimately, both of the movie’s central subjects are victims of a woefully patriarchal society, whether it’s Prachi dealing with her father’s beatings and being steered away from education or Ruhi submitting to the almost comical indignities of the so-called progressive, westernized contests. The latter is a milieu where skin-bleaching and routine Botox for teenagers don’t seem that far removed from the punishments saved for Prachi.

Pahuja contextualizes it all with footage of the ever more explosive violence erupting across a quickly modernizing India, where the “Hindu Taliban” sends mobs out to beat women caught going to bars.

Still, it’s in the final chapter that the nonjudgmental Pahuja really reaches the sickening core of the matter, although she’s careful never to hit us over the head with it. The link between all of these women, from the beauty contestants to the rural militants, is that they’re lucky to have been allowed to have been born at all. As Prachi says, excusing the abusive, authoritarian father who’s trying to force her into a marriage she doesn’t want: “Knowing that I’m a girl child, he let me live.” And as long as that’s the starting point, what kind of world can any woman have before her?


Watch the trailer for The World Before Her.

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