by Nish Israni
I love to explore the neighbourhoods in Toronto, and sometimes find myself walking along streets that I have never been to, just taking in the sights. The other night, I was walking by Royal York station when I came across the Kingsway theatre. Right away, a poster for The World Before Her, a documentary by Nisha Pahuja, grabbed my attention. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The World Before Her had won the best documentary award at the Hot Docs festival this year, and I so desperately wanted to watch it. The only showtime was just minutes away and I jumped at the chance.
The theatre was cozy and intimate, which I found charming. I respect a theatre that plays obscure, edgy or indie films because mainstream movies generally dominate cinema screens. The popcorn stand doubled as the ticket vendor area, and the guy was sweet to me as I bought the ticket. It turned out that I was the only one in the theatre, which I didn’t mind at all, because that meant I could fully relax.
The World before Her is a documentary that follows the competitors for the “Miss India” crown as they go through a strict beauty regime before the pageant. Winning the crown ensures a legacy of fame and riches that would be hard to come by for the average Indian woman, but there is a lot of controversy surrounding the pageant. Some strict conservative fundamentalists in India believe that the concept of pageants stems from the west, that women are being objectified, and that this quest for beauty is demeaning. The doc follows protests across India, including footage of women getting chased out of bars and beaten up by these right-wing extremists. Thus, the pageant officials make the bikini-round happen behind closed doors where it isn’t televised in an attempt to protect the models, and to appease the immense pressure they receive from conservatives.
Nisha Pahuja explores the extremes by overlapping the stories of the women in the pageant with those of young girls in a camp run by Durgha Vahini, the women’s wing of the militant fundamentalist movement. These young girls are put through a rigorous training composed of lectures, combat training, nationalist ideals and taught how to be good Hindu women. These girls even learn how to use weapons, and are told to protect Hindu culture and territory by all means necessary. These camps have been deemed terrorist activities by the Indian government, and the film is the first time a camera has been allowed in to their grounds.
We meet these girls, and hear them express their beliefs which have been ingrained into them by the women who run this camp. It’s heart-breaking to watch them recite hateful messages as if they were parrots mocking their owners. Nisha interviews one girl throughout who is particularly outspoken, and she confesses on camera that she would kill anyone who threatened India. Yet to see these girls learn self-defense and how to take care of themselves is heartwarming at the same time.
This documentary follows the lives of all these young women who are chasing a future for themselves while living and growing up in India. It highlights the many pressures that they face, such as imposing gender norms and expectations and sometimes blatant violence against women and children. She suggests a paradox where women in a beauty pageant or in a militant nationalistic camp all dream of a viable future despite the odds stacked against them. The empowerment that comes with winning a crown or knowing how to use a gun all suggest that women have a world before them waiting to be owned.
As a young girl who grew up in India until the age of 11, I enjoyed the documentary very much! Being alone in the theatre was like the icing on the cake because I can get quite emotional when watching a movie, especially one with scenes from home. I am glad that all my gasps, shudders, screams and laughter were muffled by the curtained walls of the theatre. I would recommend this documentary for anyone wanting to brush up on their knowledge of the fate that awaits some young Indian women.
Nish Israni is a young woman of colour who is passionate about social justice. She believes in the power of solidarity as a force for healing, transformation and finding community. She loves to create artistic expressions in their various forms which are sometimes fueled by activism such as zines, poetry, spoken word, films, and photography. She can be reached at email@example.com. RAGE MORE!