Ruhi Singh, a young woman from small-town India, is in Mumbai hoping to win a beauty pageant. To be crowned, grace the cover of a glossy, perhaps even have a shot at a Bollywood career. It's a well-sold
dream; a ticket to fame and, more importantly, a way to beat the ordinariness of life back home.
Inhabiting a diametrically opposite world, Prachi Trivedi, of a similar age, is a trainer at a camp run by Durga Vahini, the women's wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing saffron organisation. She sees Ruhi's pursuit as a corruption of Indian culture, something she is convinced groups such as hers are protecting.
Their lives are so different that they are unlikely to ever cross paths, unless it were to happen violently. Director Nisha Pahuja could have made separate documentaries, examining each of their worlds, and each would still have been powerful. Instead, she juxtaposes them in a way that makes one serve as a dramatic foil to the other.
Pahuja set out initially to capture the behind-the-scenes story of the Miss India pageant. There's enough shock value there, enough to disturb the average value system. One scene, for instance, where contestants are getting the mandatory Botox shots, has already sparked outrage. Equally disturbing is a round where the girls are made to cover their faces and torsos with white sheets and parade on a public beach in Goa, because a judge wants to evaluate just the 'hot legs'. This is the beauty industry, "a factory", as one of the mentors puts it, and it's ruthless in its objectification.
The opposing force is just as extreme, and potentially more disruptive. At the Durga Vahini camp, adolescent girls are taught to use weapons, are brainwashed with rhetoric that demonises other communities, countries and cultures.
Yet Prachi and Ruhi have a lot in common. Prachi, for all her faith in her group, is also fighting orthodoxy, in the form of the pressure to get married. At the pageant, former winner Pooja Chopra recounts how her mother saved her from becoming a victim of female infanticide. Prachi says she listens to her father simply because "I am a girl… and he let me live".
Most of us inhabit a world between these two extremes. Yet we, or the women around us, battle several of the same issues, in varying degrees of intensity.
The World Before Her raises more questions than it answers. But they are questions we should all be asking.
(The World Before Her is a PVR Director's Rare release and will be screened in select PVR cinemas)
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