‘The World Before Her’ reveals two sides of same nation

Ipsa Chaudhary

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Images flash across the screen. A woman wearing a Rajasthani lehenga, a traditional full length skirt and blouse adorned with a long sash, sweeps the dirt from the road with a broom made of bound twigs. Lights flash in the dark of night, illuminating the sweaty faces of people crowding the streets. Rickshaws and autos inch along under the blazing sun in congested traffic. These images are all too familiar to me and bring back memories of the India I’ve known and loved since I was young. But as the documentary starts to unfold, I realize how little I actually know about my homeland.

It’s easy to talk about India as if the country is all the same. But “The World Before Her” directed by Nisha Pahuja pits the old and new India against each other as the country struggles to keep up with change in the modern world. Indians pride themselves on a rich culture and tradition. I know the feeling well. But India has changed an incredible amount since the turn of the century by becoming westernized, and many Indians feel that in the process of modernization and westernization, fellow Indians are losing sight of important values.

“The World Before Her” follows a few women from two very different groups, both taking a stand for what they believe in. Prachi Trivedi, a Hindu fundamentalist, teaches at the Durga Vahini camp, which is a women’s branch of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, also known as the “Hindu Taliban.”

At the camp, girls are indoctrinated into a culture filled with violence and religious zealotry, what most western countries would call backwards thinking. But those in favor of the camp believe that it is the only way to preserve their Hindu traditions and educate their youth about Indian culture.

On the other hand, the Miss India pageant, which reflects the westernization of Indian society, is a way for women to earn a name for themselves in a male-dominated society. There’s no doubt the contest is vapid and degrading, but the participants willingly put up with the degradation in order to win and make a name for themselves.

Ruhi Singh, one of the contestants from a rural area, has a fairly good chance of winning. And for her, the most important thing is to win so she can leave her small hometown and become successful, no matter what the consequences.

However, while the documentary addresses the two extremes that represent old tradition and a new culture with the Durga Vahini camp and the Miss India beauty pageant, it fails to talk about those that are caught in the middle of that mix. There are many rural areas in India that don’t send their girls to extremist camps such as Durga Vahini, and there are many girls in cities that are educated and have successful careers without forsaking culture and tradition.
“The World Before Her” is an eye opener for those that forget that westernization isn’t always welcome or easy to accommodate. It gives an apt representation of the two Indias, the old and the new. But there isn’t just one India or two Indias. There are many. And although the documentary doesn’t touch on all of them, it does give a glimpse of complex culture in a vast country.
By Ipsa Chaudhary