One of the exciting things about a film festival, is that you never know what you’re going to stumble upon. Quality ranges from awful to exceptional. The World Before Her, directed by Nisha Pahuja, is that occasional gem. And having walked out of at least one film with shaky, out-of-focus cinematography (Beasts of the Southern Wild), I feel compelled to say that it’s a joy to watch a film with something to say, artfully stated, with crisp imagery (cinematographer Mrinal Desai).
The movie follows two extremes in modern India. Young women in a Hindu nationalist camp learn to become dangerous militants, soldiers in an upcoming war with Christians, Muslims, and anyone else threatening Indian culture (as they perceive it). Another group of young women submit themselves to painful skin bleaching and Botox sessions, in order to win the Miss India Pageant. The prize? Being embraced by the modern world.
At the “Indian taliban” camp, the most militant girls lead the newcomers. Pachi is one of these leaders. She admittedly enjoys terrifying her charges, and lives a life largely controlled both by the camp and her domineering father. Her father beats her, and then become angry when she cries. He boasts that he burned her foot with a hot iron when, at seven years of age, she lied about doing her homework. In response, says Pachi, “I’m becoming heartless.” She reprimands herself. Her father has a right to beat her. After all, he helped give birth to her and then allowed her to live, even though she was a girl.
The film also follows beauty contestant Ruhi and her very supportive family. Ruhi’s mother hopes that she wins the pageant, so that she can escape the small town in which they live and enter a world where there are choices. But even as Ruhi and those competing against her prepare, they find themselves in Burka-like garb. The girls are draped in white sheets, so that only their legs are exposed for a photo shoot. It’s a perverse fantasy of the photographer to shoot only “strong, muscular legs” undistracted by womens’ beautiful bodies or personalities.
Because the movie is fascinating, I’d like to tell you more. But it would be a crime to spoil such a wonderful film. Enjoy the trailer but, more importantly, be sure to watch the movie.