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Amid Racist Reactions to New Miss America, PBS Doc ‘The World Before Her’ Examines Pageants and Politics in India (TRAILER)

Amid Racist Reactions to New Miss America, PBS Doc ‘The World Before Her’ Examines Pageants and Politics in India (TRAILER)

Last night, when Nina Davuluri became the first
Indian-American to be crowned Miss America, Twitter erupted in hateful
commentary. Hideous monikers — “Miss Arab,” “Miss Al-Qaeda,” “Miss 7-11” —
and ugly rhetoric proliferated. “This is America,” some wrote, as if by way of
explanation. But in Nisha Pahuja’s brilliant documentary “The World Before
Her,” airing September 16 on PBS, the controversial politics of pageantry transcend
borders, including those of India itself.

The film is, at first glance, a tale of two roads diverged
in the uncertain woods of the modern subcontinent. Twenty young women arrive in
Mumbai to compete for the lucrative title of Miss India, submitting to a
rigorous, month-long beauty boot camp. Pahuja depicts Botox injections and skin
whitening procedures, material obsessions and Bollywood dreams: a discomfiting
portrait of the “independence” and “respect” the camp’s diction coach claims
the pageant ensures. “It’s a manufacturing unit,” she says proudly. “You go
inside, and you’re polished like a diamond… a modern Indian woman.” 

Far from this madding crowd, another group of young women
gathers before Malaben Rawal, the leader of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of
the country’s major Hindu nationalist cadre. 
Against later archival footage of Hindu extremists battering women in a
nightclub and setting fire to Muslim and Christian storefronts, the initial
images of the training camp — Pahuja’s film crew was the first ever allowed
inside — hold out the promise of liberation from a Western model of sex,
greed, and relentless “progress.” “Where has the self-respect of Indian women
gone?” Rawal asks.

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

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

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