I had almost no desire to see Nisha Pahuja's documentary feature "The World Before Her." Contemplating the role of women in modern India is simply not something that I've given much thought to, it's not something that had a direct bearing on my existence. But a truly effective documentary has the ability and power to open your eyes and surprise you. And what I saw here frightened me, saddened me, enraged me, and made me care. Truly, I thought this was a terrific film and an important one. Pahuja looks at two extremes of Indian womanhood. One of her subjects is the contestants of the national beauty competition for Miss India. The other is a girl's school for Hindu fundamentalists. One represents the old ideals, one is more influenced by the West. As India evolves, there are divergent belief systems that threaten to tear the country apart. And "The World Before Her" is extremely effective at examining this dichotomy.
The beginning of the film doesn't offer a lot of commentary, it allows the documentary participants to speak for themselves. As the beauty contestants readied themselves for the pageant, I thought many of the procedures and practices were demeaning and offensive. Objectified and marginalized, the whole process was inherently distasteful to me. On the other hand, the fundamentalist camp seemed to be fostering self awareness, strength and confidence in its students. It really seemed to be setting the girls up for success. As things progressed, however, and I took a closer look, my feelings completely changed. The fundamentalists turned out to be extremists that preached violence (and even murder) to support the traditional values of the country. And in the pageant, several of the contestants recognized the unpleasantness of the contest but were simply using it as a platform for a better life. I had become caught up in my own prejudices and the film knocked me for a loop.
One of the biggest hurdles to understand is that the fundamentalist women are actively fighting for a system that oppresses them. The primary contributor to this section is a young woman who doesn't want to get married and have kids, she wants to dedicate her life to the cause. But it is this exact same cause that will force her to marry and bear children! We spend considerable time in both extremes, the televised pageant is juxtaposed with the camp's graduation ceremony. It's easy to love a documentary or be affected by it simply due to its subject matter. And this film does strike an emotional chord. Scenes of random violence and unsettling statistics have lingered with me. But I don't want to dismiss "The World Before Her" in those terms. Yes, the subject matter is provocative. But more than that, this is a finely made film, balanced with precision. Definitely a must see, the experience of Pahuja's film ended up having a great impact on me and I've thought of it often since viewing it. KGHarris, 8/13.