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The documentary The World Before Her, created by Nisha Pahuja and premiered on PBS on September 16, 2013, is about girls growing up in India. It shows the conflicting values of tradition versus modernity in the country. It tells the stories of these girls and their values from two vastly different perspectives.
The first perspective is a group of teenage girls participating in the Miss India beauty pageant. The documentary follows them through the course of their training for the pageant, which includes weeks of staying together and learning how to walk, speak, and altering their bodies through both exercise and surgery to make them look better.
This part of the film is incredibly shocking, because it includes procedures such as bleaching their skin to look more white and receiving forced Botox injections. It culminates in showing the actual Miss India pageant, and the reactions of the girl who wins and those who do not. This perspective in the film focuses on the newer influence of Western culture in India.
The other girls in the film are the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Although, like the beauty pageant contests, they are in a sort of training camp, this camp is training them to effectively protect their religion and traditional culture by teaching them to fight. They learn fundamentalist Hindu principles and are taught to resist other cultures and religions, especially Christianity and Islam. The girls at these camps range in ages from very young to being on the edge of adulthood, and it is shocking to see their complete belief in the righteousness of the war they are being trained for.
At the end of the film, they are shown at their “graduation” ceremony, marching through the streets carrying guns. This perspective focuses on the traditional aspects of Indian culture.
What makes this film interesting, besides the shock value of the extreme views of both these groups, is that it does not seem to support either way of thinking. While most documentaries seem to give a message of which side is “right,” this one instead seems to showcase how over-the-top both perspectives are. The beauty pageant girls are too focused on Western values and are ignoring the important parts of their lives in order to look good. On the other hand, the girls in the Hindu militant camp are too radically engrained in their culture to recognize the values of the modern age.
This film is incredibly thought-provoking, which helped it to win the World Documentary Competition Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Because of its non-biased view, this would be a very good documentary to watch in class. It would hopefully provoke discussion because people would form an opinion of whether one side was more correct, but it would also be easy to argue either way the issues with the issues of both sides.
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