Film: The World Before Her
Director: Nisha Pahuja
?At least he let me live.?
Prachi, a young woman in the Hindu Nationalist movement in India
Each year in India 750,000 girls are aborted, and It’s unknown how many are killed at birth. When Pooja Chopra’s mother knew she was having a second daughter, her husband ordered her to have an abortion. She refused. He then told her she would have to kill the baby at birth. When she refused to do this, he divorced her. As he was preparing to leave she held up Baby Pooja and announced, “One day this baby will make me proud.”
Her prediction came true on the day that Pooja became Miss India.
Many of the girls who enter the Miss India pageant do so because the beauty industry is one of the few avenues freeing women to control their own destinies. The winner gets a host of opportunities only dreamed of by most Indian girls.
Contestant Ankita explains how the pressures of conforming to traditional Indian values and social obligations forces women to suppress their own dreams and desires until their identities fade. She herself is uncomfortable submitting to cosmetic surgery and skin-whitening formulas and parading as a sex object, but she swallows her pride and natural feminine modesty in a bid for the most expeditious life choice available to her.
Can we blame her? White audiences now disdain the ridiculous characters African American actors developed before the civil rights movement began demanding that African Americans be given more dignified roles, but African American actors today admit the debt they owe to the “Uncle Tom” actors who broke the ground for them to appear in Hollywood at all, even though the caricatures they portrayed fuelled racism.
The beauty pageant’s organizers and contestants see the pageant as a tool of liberation. Nonetheless it demands many compromises from the intelligent young women.
Not only that, but It’s dangerous. The Hindu Nationalist Movement (often referred to as the “Indian Taliban”) has now added beauty pageants to its list of targets for demonstrations and physical attacks. They think It’s an outrage that women are revealing their bodies, but even more that women want the freedom to choose their own careers, clothes, and whether or not to marry.
Prachi has been active in this movement since childhood and now serves as a kind of drill sergeant in a Durga Vahini camp, a place where young girls are trained in dogma, martial arts, and military discipline and then told that their role in life is to marry and raise the next generation of warriors.
Prachi doesn’t want to marry but is reluctantly accepting her social duty. Her father is asked if he ever beats her. He laughs and says that of course he beats her. Later Prachi tells the interviewer that her father only beats her for doing something wrong and that she always reminds herself to be grateful that he didn’t kill her at birth.
In the camp we hear loud diatribes by men and women, words which are no more than hate speech against the female gender. We watch the young Chinmaye morph from a timid girl to a buoyant disciple proud that she no longer has Muslim friends (unlike when she was young and foolish). We see her now ready to fight for her country on the terms that have just been hammered into her.
The World Before Her is a beautifully documented portrayal of a society with a deeply rooted and astonishingly callous misogyny. And so it’s particularly touching to see the scenes in which mothers express their wholehearted support for their daughters? independence and self-fulfillment as well as the scenes of loving fathers whose pride in their daughters? achievements moves them to tears.
The World Before Her manifests nine of the Mindful Bard’s criteria about for films well worth seeing: 1) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 2) it harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda; 3) it is about attainment of the true self; 4) it inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation; 5) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 6) it makes me want to be a better artist; 7) it gives me tools of compassion, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me; 8) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; and 9) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.