The World Before Her: Abu Dhabi Review

Provocative content transcends conventional documentary form in this level-eyed look at two of the more extreme choices available to young women in today's fast-changing India.

Nisha Pahuja's prize-winning documentary alternates between two very different perspectives of current Indian society.

Winner of major prizes at Tribeca and Toronto's Hotdocs earlier this year, The World Before Her sees Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja return to her native India to craft a two-sided snapshot of a society in flux and in conflict. Alternating between a training-camp for young militant Hindu females and the glossily western-style Miss India beauty contest yields some bluntly ironic contrasts, but while the shape of the picture breaks no new turf its participants are sufficiently engaging and illuminating to maintain our interest throughout. Further festival play and awards are indicated, followed by a lengthy afterlife in television and educational environments.

Because while much of the picture is very specific to this billion-strong, economically surging nation, the fundamental issue of the choices available to young women resonate far beyond the borders of the sub-continental giant. Pahuja's first advantage in her first feature doc since 2003's self-explanatory Bollywood Bound, is the behind-closed-doors access she obtains. We're thus granted privileged glimpses of both the Pantaloons Femina Miss India tournament, viewed by many of its ambitious participants as springboard to a career in modelling, Bollywood and/or the media, and, even more off-limits to outsiders, the Durga Vahini camp where females aged from 15 to 25 are forcibly guided through their "transformation into tigers."

In the former, no single face or voice dominates, and even the most astutely articulate of the contenders, Shweta, gets only a relatively fleeting amount of screen-time. Throughout the rural boot-camp sequences, very much the first among equals is 24-year-old Prachi, a tomboyish character whose harrowingly harsh upbringing at the hands of her fiercely traditionalist father has resulted in a strange mixture of the submissive and the spirited. Thankful to her abusive father on the basis that he could very easily have had her aborted on the grounds of her gender, Prachi speaks her mind in a near-constant stream of defiant invective: "I hate Gandhi!" she snaps.

Prachi is such a strangely charismatic, stranger-than-fiction figure Pahuja must have been tempted to abandon her split-focus approach and devote the whole movie to her - there's certainly enough material in Pahuja's thorny family-life for a series of movies. As it is, Pahuja  and editor Dave Kazala zip back and forth between the glammed-up contestants and the sari-clad tigresses in a manner that unobtrusively underlines how both environments require the women to subsume their individual idiosyncracies to conform to a certain desired, pre-determined mold, while at the same time fortifying their self-confidence. Both strands build to a grand show - the competition for the contestants, graduation for the fighters - in which both wear surprisingly similar sashes.

The result is, as someone remarks, a picture of "two Indias" on a "collision course", though it's rather more complex than a simple clash of past and future, or Hinduism and Christianity, or spirituality and commercialism. A World Before Her elects to examine extremes of society then betrays a certain surprise at the extremities it then finds - most notably during Pahuja's increasingly exasperated interviews with Prachi and her unapologetically old-school father Hemanji ("she has to get married, and she will.") But while she's occasionally over-reliant on Ken Myhr's score to heighten mood and effect, particularly in a sequence that deploys thriller-style music to emphasize Hindu zealots' "threat" to "national security," Pahuja does manage the tricky feat of providing intelligent and illuminating commentary on such a vast, sprawling subject as India within an accessible 90-minute package.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production company: Storyline Entertainment
Director / Screenwriter: Nisha Pahuja
Producers: Cornelia Principe, Nisha Pahuja
Executive producers: Ed Barreveld, Andy Cogen, Mike Chamberlain
Directors of photography: Mrinal Desai, Derek Rogers
Music: Ken Myhr
Editor: Dave Kazala
Sales agent: Cinetic Media, New York
No MPAA rating, 90 minutes.