India is a completely male dominated society, there women are told by their fathers, and later by their husbands, that they shouldn’t have careers or hopes and ambitions beyond marriage and what men tell them to do. The World Before Her, by Nisha Pahuja, seeks to shed light on this society through parallel views of the Miss India beauty pageant and a training camp run by Durgha Vahini, a Hindu nationalist group.


The World Before Her presents both sides of the story for both groups, but is more critical of the Hindu nationalist, focusing on two women in the pageant and one girl at the camp. It goes in depth with horrifying acts of violence that the Hindu groups perpetrate against women, showing candid footage of them being beaten for going to bars, drinking alcohol or being seen with men.

The filmmakers were the first ever allowed to film within the Durgha Vahini camps, where young girls are conditioned to kill and die for their religion. It’s disgusting and surreal to see these young women, it seems willingly, dedicate themselves to serving and defending a belief system that controls them and suppresses them.

The film poses that these Hindu extremists might actually be more dangerous than the Islamist ones. A revenge attack by the former against the latter cost the lives of over a thousand Muslims, the destruction of over two hundred mosques and the displacement of 60.000 people. The attack being avenged cost 50 Hindus their lives. When Hindu extremist leaders claim that to be self defense their true nature is revealed. They are militantly against what they call corrupting attacks of Westernization.

The Miss India contestants from The World Before Her

What’s seen as one of the greatest objectifications of these attacks is the Miss India competition. Many women see the pageant as a way to gain freedom, a voice and personality. The truth might not be so cut and dry but the fact is that the beauty business is one of the only career avenues that put women on an even keel with men in India. The pageant is shown just as box filling, with women put into specific roles and put to a standard of beauty imposed by the pageant. It’s clearly not an overly positive portrayal, but is clearly seen as at least better than the general reality.

The filmmakers rarely intervene, allowing the women to speak their mind and the imagery to speak for itself. On occasion however they do directly confront the Hindu nationalist girls with hard hitting questions and it’s rather horrifying to hear how they rationalize to themselves that the imposed coercion of women is right. It’s not as if they’re fulfilling some holy plan as nowhere in Hindu scripture is this mandatory oppression of women found.

These are obviously the extreme ends of the spectrum in India and there’s a distinct lack of a more centralized viewpoint as to mediate things somewhat. Perhaps this is the only way to effectively combat the rampant anti-woman attitude. The film isn’t necessarily anti-religion as much as it’s against the archaic thought process that the religion enables.

Ultimately what it’s really about is the fact that this has to change. India is a universally horrible place to be a woman. There are 750.000 girls aborted every year in the ruthless quest for sons, with an unknown number killed at birth.

Final Verdict: The World Before Her paints a terrifying picture of the reality women in India face every day. Well made and clearly political its only real flaw is the lack of a less radical viewpoint. Nonetheless it’s a captivating  and shocking look at a very sad and very real situation.

Keep up with our RIFF coverage here.
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