Directed by Nisha Pahuja
2012, Canada, 90 minutes
Consider director Nisha Pahuja a master of the loaded title. ‘The World’ is India, a billon strong, chaotically democratic, and torn between modernity and tradition. ‘Before’ is the most ambiguous word of the title—is it that the world exists prior to her, that the world is laid out in front of her, or that the world exists to be changed by her? Finally, ‘Her’. Ostensibly, the two sets of women featured in this documentary are radically different: twenty contestants in the Miss India pageant versus a group of young women who attend training camps run by the Durga Vahini, the woman’s wing of a nationalist Hindu organization. However, the comparison Pahuja draws on screen is far more ambiguous than one would initially suspect.
Pahuja’s talent for juxtaposition should be noted because it is uncommon. It isn’t enough to say that the Miss India contestants are modern and free and the girls of Durga Vahini are tradition-bound and repressed. The truth has more ambiguity, and Pahuja has a talent for finding it, whether it is Miss India contestants speaking so eloquently privately and then struggling for words during the pageant, or the girls of Durga Vahini practicing self-defence methods at camp and then tolerating violent discipline at home. Through it all Pahuja remains behind the camera, her voice only occasionally emerging to push her subjects just a little further.
The World Before Her is one of the best documentaries on femininity and culture in years. It is lively but thought provoking, interesting while remaining accessible, and mercifully—mercifully—jargon-free. It is one of very few essential documentaries at this year’s festival, but I suspect—and hope—that it will have a long post-festival life.
– Dave Robson
Hot Docs runs from April 26th through May 6th. Visit the official festival website here.