Judge Michael Nazarewycz is looking at life from both sides now.
"Can you really hide your natural weakness or character as a woman?"
America is a country with a history steeped in opposites. North and South. Hatfields and McCoys. Tastes Great and Less Filling. Yankees and Red Sox. Yes, conflict and the American culture are as old as…well, as old as Redcoats and Bluecoats. We're not alone when it comes to internal conflict. India, with its population of 1.2 billion (about four times that of the USA), has its own cultural conflicts, with one in particular that is more polarizing than Democrats and Republicans.
Facts of the Case
The World Before Her, set in present-day India, is a documentary that focuses primarily on two women. The first is Ruhi, a pretty young woman who is one of twenty pretty young women vying for the title of Miss India. The other is Prachi, a youth leader in the all-girl radical nationalist group Durga Vahini. The Miss India contestants seem oblivious to the existence of the latter group, while the members of Durga Vahini hold the former group in great disdain. As different as these two groups—and the women who belong to them—are, they have something in common that you might not expect.
At first this film, the winner of several festival awards including Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca, seems like an exercise in basic culture clash or simple compare-and-contrast. There is a beauty pageant and a military camp. A pretty girl and a homely girl. Proud liberal parents and disapproving conservative ones. Pride and humility. New world and old school.
In one corner are the twenty women competing for the title of Miss India. This is a pageant that, at a high level, is not unlike Miss America: be pretty, walk in heels, look good in a swimsuit, and answer a topical question. These women have previous pageant experience and are instead selected to participate in the pageant. Once they arrive, they spend thirty days in "training," learning things like how to walk in those heels and how to pose in those swimsuits. They also receive Botox injections where so-called experts think Botox is necessary, and go through a skin bleaching process that makes them look more Anglo.
These women, each as beautiful as the next, are looking for success—even by way of pageantry—in a world dominated by men.
In the other corner are girls—around the same age range as the beauty pageant contestants—who go through a very different kind of training regimen. They are taught about weapons, and hand-to-hand combat, and the evils of the Muslim and Christian faiths. Their cause is their country, and it drives everything they do. They are the antithesis of the Miss India contestants.
I couldn't help but think about how close this comes to being an American tale. From Toddlers and Tiaras to Mrs. America, we are a nation that views beauty as something to be parlayed into a better life as well as something to be objectified. Conversely, we have youth-based religious organizations, we are a nation with no shortage of xenophobes, and there's something of a militant contingent here as well. I cannot say for certain that there is one particular American organization that fits all three descriptions, but I'm curious to see the Venn Diagram.
Then about halfway through the film, director Nisha Pahuja (Bollywood Bound) posts a devastating title card:
"In the pursuit of sons, 750,000 girls are deliberately aborted in India every year. The number of girls killed at birth is not known."
So much for the simple compare-and-contrast. So much for the American parallel.
This is what adds an unexpected and fascinating dimension to The World Before Her. Unlike other cultures, including our own, where the conflict might simply be one of old versus new or moral versus immoral, the Indian culture has something of an unwritten tenet that makes females second-class fetuses. You hear stories about things like this, but when you see it in a documentary, and when you hear Prachi say (about her father), "He let me live [as a baby]. That's the best part," it cuts through you and changes the way you watch the film—for the better.
You would think this would unite the women of India. It doesn't. In fact, it creates a greater divide. In even older old-school Indian culture, women are expected to marry and procreate, period. Neither of the groups documented here want any part of that, but each group goes about exercising its "independence" from the old Indian culture in different ways.
The 1.33:1 SD color imagery and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio are perfectly fine, with greater A/V pop for the pageant scenes (for obvious reasons). Director Pahuja also takes time to show the contestants in less glamorous moments, too. This is shrewd, as it reminds us that they are still Indian women, not just glamour contestants looking for fame and fortune. The numerous extended and deleted scenes were just as interesting as the rest of the film, and made for a fine addendum to it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one thing I wish there had been a more of is a little more sense of the internal relationships among the pageant contestants and among the Durga Vahini members. I'd be willing to bet that there is a greater bond and sense of camaraderie among the Durga Vahini members than there is among the Miss India contestants. Pageants can be cutthroat—perhaps as much internally as the Durga Vahini train to be externally. That storyline could have told a tale of yet another interesting contrast.
I am no fan of the Durga Vahini, but in the end, I think their girls are the ultimate winners (with the possible exception of Miss India, who is crowned by the film's conclusion). The road has ended for the nineteen girls not crowned Miss India. The girls of Durga Vahini, however, are part of a cause, not a contest. Their goal is something they will fight for for a lifetime, whereas the nineteen beauties have an uncertain future.
Not guilty. Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but the passion in
this story is on the screen for all to see.
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