Yet “The World Before Her” is neither a paean to stasis nor a polemic of change. Rather, the two roads converge: on their graduation day, girls at the Hindu nationalist camp compare their orange sashes to the Miss India contestants’ on-stage garb, while a beauty queen responds to a judge’s question by claiming she would “slap” her son if he “chose” to be gay. In this and other complications, the film sunders the viewer’s political calculus, cultivating a frankly remarkable ambivalence that is both thrilling and unsettling. I found myself switching allegiances repeatedly. What could I make of Prachi, the 24-year-old nationalist who expressed her independence through militant support for a movement rejecting women’s equality? Or of Ruhi, the Jaipur beauty queen whose hope of a better life for her family required her to wear a white covering over her face so a man might evaluate her legs?
“The World Before Her” offers no answers to these questions, only the surprising affinities that emerge when we burrow down to politics’ deepest personal implications. The documentary’s India is one struggling to define its own relationship with the present and the past, and by extension its vision for the future. Reading about the responses to Davuluri’s victory, the racist remarks and their subsequent condemnations, I concluded that the worlds before Prachi and Ruhi differ from our own roads somewhat less than we would like to admit, that India is not even remotely the only nation where women’s opportunities follow too few roads.
Pahuja’s directorial genius lay in her ability to refract the immensity of these topics through the prism of Indian women’s individual lives, to suggest the human contours of constrained decisions and lend them the utmost respect. “The World Before Her” reserves its ire for the limits placed on Indian women’s choices on both sides of the political spectrum, rather than the choices themselves. After all, Ruhi and Prachi, pageant contestants and nationalists-in-training, are no simpler than the nation they inhabit; they contain multitudes. “Ask for milk, we’ll give you rice pudding,” the girls in orange sashes sing after comparing themselves to beauty queens. “Ask for Kashmir, we’ll slit your throats.”
“The World Before Her” airs September 16 on the PBS series “POV.” Check your local listings. The film is also available on pbs.org (through October 16), iTunes, Amazon Digital, and Vudu.