The World Before Her is a documentary that attempts to contrast the lives of two women who apparently belong to very different worlds. One of them heads a Durga Vahini camp, while another is a beauty pageant aspirant. The director Nisha Pahuja must be congratulated for closely observing the women in their various moods. That said, while she explored and even commented on the regressive aspects of the Durga Vahini and nicely exposed at least some of the contradictions of that life, she failed to be nearly as critical of the other side of the binary. I will strongly argue that the director was not just “documenting” but also passing her own judgments, not only by the choice of footage and conversations, but also by showing some clippings of extremism by the Hindutva goons. Not once did she comment directly on capitalist consumerism which is at the root of the conceptualization of beauty contests. Right from setting a standard definition of what constitutes beauty to objectifying the human body, not to mention feeding the frenzy of presenting the human body as a consumable object [subsumed in the logic of market] – the beauty pageants happen to be hubs of regressive value generation.
However, Pahuja betrayed her possible liberal leanings by only managing to make some feeble critiques. One example was how the contestants were being asked to wear masks on their faces because the fashion expert wanted them to show “only sexy legs”. The obviously dehumanizing and undignified way of treating the contestants was highlighted by the director. Then there was the way the judges [what do they judge exactly?] were “checking out” the girls as they walked in their bikinis. The girls also recounted how some of them felt a little uncomfortable with the bikini rounds or with them being asked to walk about as if they were showpieces. Still, at the end of the day, the director’s sympathies clearly lay overwhelmingly with the “liberties” offered by the beauty contest. An example would be the way the director brings out the emotions [without any criticisms] of the girls when they say that they have so much freedom to make a name for themselves and be famous etc. On the other hand, she, though quite rightly except that she was being selective in her critique, asks the Durga Vahini girl how she feels about the contradiction she is facing – this girl boasts of being in control of so many girls but she is entirely at the mercy of her father, whom she recalls as the person who was “kind enough” to let her live “even though she was a girl child” and therefore she thinks the excesses of her father, like burning her foot with a hot metal utensil when she was a child or not considering her opinion at all if she wants to get married [she doesn’t] or not, are perfectly justified. Also, I have no idea what the director was trying to convey by showing the question-answer round in the contest, where a girl apparently gave a less than satisfactory answer to a question regarding homosexuality. Finally, on a slightly unrelated but nonetheless serious note, the director should have been less reckless while giving the details regarding the Godhra carnage. It read that “Muslims had burned the Sabarmati express” whereas the truth is that nobody really knows the truth! Also, she referred to the Hindutva goons as Hindu extremists, and yet she used “Muslims” only, something which is totally unacceptable.