Nisha Pahuja’s “The World Before Her” looks at the promises and problems of two training camps for women

On the surface, there is nothing in common between Ruhi Singh and Prachi Trivedi. While the former is a Miss India contestant, the latter is a committed member of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In what they represent, they couldn’t be further from each other. But in Nisha Pahuja’s documentary, their worlds come together.

Told primarily through these two characters, The World Before Her is an examination of conflicting ideas of femininity. The film moves back and forth between two camps — a month-long beauty boot camp with the contestants for the Miss India pageant and a camp for young girls run by Durga Vahini — which represent different routes to ‘empowerment’ for women. If one teaches them how to wear a bikini, the other teaches them how to shoot guns.

The two camps are constantly in conversation with each other; Prachi and her family watch the Miss India telecast disapprovingly, while a contestant speaks about how women are held back by those claiming to be custodians of ‘tradition’. But the film is not a simple exercise in comparing and contrasting the two; through a thoughtful juxtaposition, it establishes that they are not so distinct.

At one point, a diction coach calls the Miss India training camp a factory that produces the modern Indian woman. The Durga Vahini camp is also a factory, where women’s bodies are disciplined in a different way. “We look at these camps as distinct and diametrically opposed, as if these two worlds are existing in two different solitudes. Yet, they actually share more in common than initially meets the eye …For me the journey that the audience goes through, is the journey I went through, which is a journey of discovery,” the Canada-based filmmaker says, on a visit to Delhi.

Accessing both these spaces was not easy for the director; she had to wait for two years to shoot at a Durga Vahini training camp, overcoming obstacles passive and aggressive. At the Miss India camp, the problem was of a different hue. Although access came easily, maintaining it proved slippery over the course of the shooting. Explaining her filming, Nisha says, “I had always approached the film with the idea that I wanted to understand rather than judge. I had of course my own opinions, but I didn’t want to impose those opinions on the material. I wanted to allow people to speak for themselves.”

Away from the secrecies and posturing that both these spaces lend themselves to, the film is able to forge an affecting intimacy with the characters. Explaining the difficulty of shooting at the Miss India camp, Nisha adds, “When you are in a situation like that, it becomes very competitive. People start to shut down. They don’t want to show you what’s going on, because it’s a sign of weakness.” Ruhi is a welcome exception who lays bare all her frailties and vulnerabilities for the camera. For Prachi too, the moment of the interview is often a cathartic one.

The film gets to the big ideas — freedom, power, tradition, modernity — through the characters’ stories. And these stories inevitably lead to their families. We are introduced to Prachi’s father, who reveals proudly how he scorched her leg with a hot iron rod, to teach her not to lie, as well as Ruhi’s parents who experience the highs and lows of Ruhi’s journey vicariously. “For me that’s some of the strongest material in the film…I am much less of an issue filmmaker. I don’t do essay films or films that are necessarily driven by investigative reporting. I find the idea of being able to explore the inner worlds of people more attractive,” Nisha says.