Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tribeca ’12: The World Before Her

Being crowned Miss India is a major deal.  It can lead to endorsements and career opportunities throughout India, the Mid East, Southeast Asia, and even England.  However, Hindu extremist mobs have violently protested many Indian beauty pageants, bringing with them members of the Durga Vahini, the women’s auxiliary of the movement.  Nisha Pahuja introduces viewers to two very different women who represent each side of India’s culture war in The World Before Her (trailer here), which screens today as the World Documentary Competition Award winner at the 2012 TribecaFilm Festival.

To put things in perspective, Aishwarya Rai took second place in the 1994 pageant.  Many winners and runners-up have gone on to lucrative modeling and Bollywood careers.  Ruhi Singh would like to follow in their footsteps.  As we watch her in the days leading up to the contest, it is clear the underdog from the provinces is in it to win it. 

Prachi on the other hand, will not be competing in pageants anytime soon.  The dread terror of Durga Vahini boot camps, she readily condemns them as decadent western cultural imports.  Though she chafes whenever her domineering father talks about marriage, Prachi wholeheartedly advocates such a traditional lifestyle for the young weapons-trained Durga Vahini girls.  It is a contradiction she has a difficult time reconciling, even when pressed by Pahuja.

World Before Her is more than a bit scary documenting violent Hindu extremist violence targeting women (more-or-less condoned by the Durga Vahini).  Frankly, it is hard to differentiate between the thugs who beat up female patrons for drinking in Bombay bars (nobody calls it Mumbai in Before) from the Islamists throwing acid in the faces of insufficiently veiled women on the streets of Pakistan.

To her credit, Pahuja never over-simplifies the circumstances facing her POV figures.  There is indeed plenty of sexist objectifying going on behind the scenes of Miss India.  Likewise, the undeniably abusive history of Prachi’s “traditional” father is well established.  However, one world view is clearly seeking to force all Indian women into conformity, whereas the other is not.  One insightful pageant contestant also challenges the overheated rhetoric regarding “westernization.”  As she points out, yoga practice has become widespread in America, but nobody talks about us becoming “Indianized.”  Score one for the beauty queen.

Much more timely and illuminating than other documentaries addressing gender issues at Tribeca this year (most definitely including the wildly unfocused Sexy Baby), Before even derives some suspense from the big climatic show.  Essentially, it combines women’s studies issues with a contemporary Hindu terrorism expose, while maintaining a sliver of Bollywood appeal.  Consistently interesting, it screens again today (4/29), when the winning films take their victory laps at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.