The World Before Her is a film about many things. But more than anything else, it’s a film about aspiration. Following the stories of women who come from seemingly opposite camps of thought, it presents an interesting picture of contemporary India and the underlying fears and ambitions of its women, a section that’s increasingly asserting itself in the country’s public and political spaces. Is it better to be modern or is it better to go back to your roots? And what do we mean by these phrases to start with? In most societies, especially the patriarchal ones, it is the women who are held responsible for carrying forward its culture and values. What happens when these women want to make different choices, shake things up a little?
On the one hand, there are girls like Ruhi, Ankita, and Pooja, who believe winning the Miss India title will give them money, fame, pride, and more importantly, an identity of their own. Winning the crown would make their career, either in modeling or in Bollywood - both extremely lucrative options. Some of them have the support of their parents to go all the way and do what it takes to win the crown. Other parents are more iffy about the beauty industry and its accompanying glitz.
On the other hand, there are girls like Prachi who go to Durga Vahini camps, organized by a Hindu Nationalist party, and believe ‘westernization’ is cultural suicide. Prachi, who has been attending these camps from the time she was three years old, trains other young girls to become mentally mature and physically strong, in the mould of the party’s definitions of these characteristics. While these camps endorse traditional gender roles, Prachi herself has dreams of her own. She doesn’t want marriage or children (which she sees as impediments); she’d rather spend her life building the Hindutva movement.
As the film progresses, we see differences dissolve as these women – who don’t meet at all in person – talk about their lives and the choices that are available to them. The limitations imposed on them because of their gender and the everyday violence that women in the country are subjected to, is omnipresent in every frame, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, cutting across class and cultural lines.
The narrative is non-judgmental in tone and makes one root for the protagonists, even if one may be shocked by some of the things they say. The deft editing and judicious juxtaposition of views and events from the two worlds create a ‘plot’ of sorts that isn’t spelt out to the viewers but rather leaves it them to join the dots as they may see it fit.
With the political climate of the country increasingly becoming saffronized, it becomes all the more relevant to discuss the inevitable clash between these two Indias, neither of which is necessarily better when it comes to the status of women. The film reminds one of that cartoon by Malcolm Evans which was doing the rounds on the Internet a while ago – a woman in a bikini pitying a woman in a purdah, thinking she’s subjugated, while the woman in the purdah looks at the woman in the bikini, pitying her for pandering to male objectification of the female body.
The World Before Her asks a very pertinent question – what really is female emancipation? Or rather, who really defines female emancipation? Is a woman who can handle a gun but believes women shouldn’t wear skimpy clothes emancipated? Is a woman who believes nobody has the right to tell her what to wear but undergoes skin whitening treatment emancipated? It’s hard to make a choice.
And indeed, these choices will always be hard to make as long as we are forced to make them within worlds that are constructed by patriarchal beliefs– be it those of Prachi’s father who is bare-chested for the full length of the film but calls the clothes of the Miss India girls vulgar, or those of the very suave Marc Robinson who cloaks his models’ faces to see who has the best legs without the ‘distraction’ of their personality.
Verdict: A must-see!
Rating: Four out of five stars