Miss India vs. Hindu Fundamentalists

When Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja set out to document the glitzy Miss India pageant, she didn’t expect to simultaneously cover the Durga Vahini, the female wing of a Hindu fundamentalist movement.

While conducting research for her film nearly four years ago, the India-born, Toronto-bred director encountered one of the movement’s fiery young leaders, Prachi Trivedi.

“Meeting Prachi was like being hit by a truck,” said Ms. Pahuja, who soon discovered that Ms. Trivedi represented a group of women vehemently opposed to the Miss India pageant and the “Western ideals” it supposedly embodied.

“I started to think that I had to incorporate this opposition into the fabric of the film,” said the 45-year-old Ms. Pahuja. “You can’t tell the fundamentalist story without exploring what they’re railing against and vice-versa.”

Ms. Pahuja showcases these contradictory realities in her documentary, “The World Before Her,” which opened in the U.S. in early May. The film, available on DVD and digital download from August, won Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. It was also selected as Best Foreign Film at director Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival last year.

“I’m glad that people in the West are responding to the film, but really I made it for audiences in India. It’s important that people recognize what’s happening in their own backyard,” Ms. Pahuja said, adding that “self-reflection is still missing from Indian discourse” even after the global attention that followed the December gang rape and death of a student in New Delhi.

The documentary moves fluidly between pageant prep – “It hurts? You look fab,” a Botoxed runway coach barks at Miss India hopefuls, hungry for instant stardom—and the Durga Vahini retreat, a physically and spiritually draining 10-day camp where teenage girls are steeped in right-wing Hindu philosophy.

Ms. Pahuja said she decided to spotlight a powerful representative from each sphere in order to capture “the two Indias.”

At the Miss India pageant, Ruhi Singh, a 19-year-old from Jaipur, faces everything from skin-lightening treatments to diction lessons. “I think of myself as a very modern young girl and I want freedom,” Ms. Singh says in the film’s opening moments. “I want to make my parents really proud, they created me. If they’ve created me, it’s my duty to work as hard as possible and make them feel like their creation is good,” she adds.

Meanwhile, at the Durga Vahini camp, Ms. Trivedi leads karate tutorials and discusses her disdain for Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent beliefs: “Frankly speaking, I hate Gandhi,” she says. “Egyptians, Romans…they are history now… It’s going to happen with us [Hindus], so we are trying to save ourselves.”

Ultimately, the divergent worlds both serve as sites for manufacturing female identities. Ms. Singh and Ms. Trivedi are cultural custodians, conditioned to embody a set of conflicting national ideals. “When the penny dropped, I realized I had a film looking at two ideas of what India needs to be and how women are being used to shape these two ideas,” Ms. Pahuja said.

The filmmaker is no stranger to chronicling thorny subjects. Her previous project, “Diamond Road” (2007) is a three-part series on the global diamond trade, shining light on everyone from miners in Sierra Leone to gem dealers in Manhattan.

She plans to make a series that takes an even deeper look at global fundamentalist camps. “Fundamentalism is on the rise around the world and it’s important—not just for India, but for us Westerners, too—to see the impact that our culture and our rampant materialism has,” Ms. Pahuja said.