The documentary films shown at the Tribeca Film Festival are almost always more rewarding than the fiction features, so it is troubling that few people ever see them. Documentaries rarely get theatrical releases, but luckily programs such as PBS’s POVand the HBO documentary series screen these wonderful films, many from around the world. One, “The World Before Her,” was shown at Tribeca in the spring and can now be seen on Monday night on PBS. It’s a fascinating examination of women’s lives and bodies in a rapidly changing society.
Focusing on two young women from very different backgrounds in India, Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja examines how India’s rapid modernization has impacted the lives of these girls and others. Starting with the phenomenon of beauty pageants, which have become hugely popular, she follows several of the contestants for the title of Miss India.
For these lovely young women, winning a beauty pageant is worth almost any sacrifice because it means wealth and career opportunities and a chance to escape the limited lives they face otherwise. At the beauty boot camp they attend, the girls obsess about their hair and the exact shade of their skin, resorting to skin lighteners. Although they are very young, they are getting Botox injections and their teeth whitened. Ruhi Singh’s parents are just as invested in her winning as she is and spend a lot of money to help her succeed, overlooking the immodest costumes.
The other young woman in the film couldn’t be more different: Prachi Trivedi is a member of a Hindu fundamentalist group and works in a camp for rural girls where she helps to indoctrinate them with the group’s ideology of Hindu superiority. “We don’t know who we are anymore,” Trivedi says in disgust, spouting vicious denunciations of Islam, Christianity, and Western culture. Stocky and mannish, Trivedi is forthright and passionate about her beliefs. She’s willing to die for the cause and doesn’t hesitate to beat the shy, dark-skinned girls in her care. This passion doesn’t sway her father, however, who states flatly that it is her duty to marry and bear children whether she wants to or not. It’s pretty clear that’s not what she wants.
To an American viewer, what is striking is how much both Prachi and Ruhi are defined by their parents’ desires. Both girls express the feeling that they are essentially the property of their parents since they would not be alive without them. It is inconceivable to them that they might simply defy them and do whatever they wish. In that sense, Prachi and Ruhi are very much alike. In a strongly male-dominated society such as India (a huge number of girls are aborted every year in favor of sons), women struggle to find any shred of autonomy. “The World Before Her” doesn’t judge either of these two women; Pahuja isn’t making a moral case for one way or another but presenting an unusual perspective on what change involves.