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film review

A scene from “The World Before Her”

The World Before Her, winner of top prizes at Hot Docs and the Tribeca Film Festival, comes with a pitch so irresistible that it's almost gimmicky: Indian beauty camp or boot camp?

In practice, Indian-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja's documentary turns out to be a thought-provoking film that examines women's limited choices in a patriarchal country reeling from the contradictions of rapid modernization.

Along the way, it highlights how such concepts as oppression, empowerment and dignity can be manipulated for political purposes.

In Bombay (Mumbai), 20 finalists in the Miss India pageant live in a hotel, where they primp, take diction lessons and parade about in bikinis in a month-long pre-telecast beauty camp. It's pure reality-television catnip.

Pageant diction coach Sabira Merchant (a purring matriarch in the Joan Collins mode) calls it "a little factory … where you're polished like a diamond. The modern Indian woman."

Then there's the other locale of the film, which would be the sort of sweeps-week TV news special: "Deep inside a Hindu militant training camp." After two years of effort, Pahuja's film crew became the first to shoot inside the camp of Durga Vahini (the women's branch of the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad, known as the "Hindu Taliban"), where teenaged girls practise homicidal chants, learn to use rifles and prepare to be martyred in the name of pushing back perceived Christian and Muslim encroachment on their Hindu traditional values.

In the camp, we meet counsellor Prachi Trivedi, a heavy-set young woman with strong eyebrows and an anxious, fervent line of patter. Throughout the film, her talk becomes increasingly disturbing. She eventually emerges as the most tragic figure here, a woman who does not want to marry but believes she is required to for religious reasons. At one point, she admits that she is fighting for a system that will give her fewer rather than more opportunities to live the life she wants.

In the Miss India group, the film's main subjects are Ruhi Singh, a sweet rural teenager who sees the Miss India crown as the fulfilment of her parents' wishes and a route to freedom.

Though much of the behind-the-scenes material is predictably vapid, there are occasionally creepy moments. At one point, contest organizer Marc Robinson laughingly insists that the women put on sacks with eyeholes and parade about the beach, so that he can better judge their naked limbs. The alpha female of the contestants (and eventual Miss India 2011 winner), Ankita Shorey, concedes that morals and dignity may be compromised, but winning is what counts.

The film's real ace in the hole, though, is the 2009 Miss India winner, Pooja Chopra, who says she is especially grateful to her mother for her sacrifices. This turns out to be more than rote acknowledgment. Her mother explains how she left Pooja's father when he said he would not tolerate any more daughters. The United Nations estimates that 750,000 fetuses are aborted each year in India because they are female, and female infanticide is still practised.

The gratitude is grimly echoed by the militant Prachi, who excuses her father's beatings by saying: "Knowing that I'm a girl child, he let me live. … That's the best part. In a traditional family, people don't let a girl child live. They kill the child."

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