Boot camp or beauty pageant?  That's the question addressed by the winner of this year's Tribeca Film Festival's documentary award, director Nisha Pahuja's "The World Before Her."


The film follows two sets of young Indian women, one attending a grueling 30-day course designed to prepare them for competing in the Femina "Miss India" contest, which produces India's entrant for the Miss World and Miss Universe competitions, and the other attending the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) Durga Vahini boot camp -- which indoctrinates students in the tenets of Hindu nationalism and provides the combat skills they'll need to, well, kill Muslims.

The documentary has not been released in India as far as I know. But the trailer provides a neat contrast between the two worlds, juxtaposing the beauty pageant's ethos, "It hurts? It looks fabulous," with the doctrines of the RSS, "If you ask for milk, I will give you pudding. If you ask for Kashmir, I will slit your throat!"

"We thought a beauty pageant as a prism to explore a country undergoing cultural changes post-liberalization would make an interesting film," Pahuja, who lives in Canada, told the Indian Express. But she soon confronted Indian feminists and Hindu fundamentalists, who opposed the new fascination with pageants for very different reasons. 

"I began to realize that the balance had to shift, and that each world had to be represented equally in the documentary," the Express quotes Pahuja as saying.

As Variety reviewer John Anderson writes: Women and India are the ostensible subjects of "The World Before Her," but Nisha Pahuja's docu hangs a big, fat question mark over the future of humankind itself. Will the world grow increasingly Westernized and, some would say, licentious, a la the Miss India competition chronicled in the film? Or will fundamentalist zealotry turn back the clock on individual freedom, as per the extreme Hindus who provide the film's counterweight? Walking a tightrope over a vat of hot-button topics, and boasting plenty of sex appeal with its beauty contestants, this Tribeca prizewinner could well break out of the festival ghetto.

It's an interesting question. For the English-speaking resident of India, it's tempting to see India as growing more and more westernized without exception. The beauty pageants that Pahuja traces in her documentary produced both Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra -- two of this era's biggest female Bollywood stars -- though subsequent winners have been less successful.  Reality TV has taken India by storm, with copies of Big Brother and the like captivating audiences tired of cheaply produced costume dramas about family infighting (a genre known as Saas-Bahu, or "Mother-in-law vs. Bride").  And you increasingly read stories on topics like young couples migrating to the cities and living together unbeknownst to their parents rather than agreeing to a traditional arranged marriage.

The interesting thing about "The World Before Her," at least to an India-watcher who has yet to see the complete film, is that it also profiles a parallel rise of conservatism and traditionalism among today's youth. The Durga Vahini is an extreme example, but plenty of young people who seem "westernized" because they work for multinational companies and buy the latest cell phones are also rejecting much of what western liberals consider modern values. For every story about couples living together, for instance, there's one about young people who have come around to the idea of an arranged marriage.  And for every girl acting "bindaas" (bold) on MTV's "Roadies" reality TV show, there are hundreds among the elite who are consciously rejecting empowerment, at least as it is typically conceived.

In fact, I sometimes think that this generation is in some ways more conservative than the last -- so wrapped up in materialism that they are loath to think about other kinds of change.  After all, these are the kids who took to the streets to protest *against* affirmative action a few years back in what I like to think of as the opposite of California's "summer of love."

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