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How an Indian Newspaper Conglomerate Pretended a Documentary on Beauty Pageants Just Didn't Exist

Photo of Laya Maheshwari By Laya Maheshwari | Criticwire June 13, 2014 at 11:10AM

It wasn't criticism of right-wing politics that got "The World Before Her" banned from some Indian newspapers, but an expose of the beauty pageant they sponsor.
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"Come here, let me explain something to you:

I never touch anything sub-standard.

By the way, I've scored many times, but only with white chicks.

I don't like them anymore, come be my whore.

I mean: be mine, ho."

These are some of the most poetic lines in "Brown Rang" (Brown-Skinned), a single by Indian rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh (stage name, thankfully). Such misogynistic trash is unfortunately common in the subcontinent's art & cultural landscape, but Honey Singh's case is special because of how popular he is amongst the youth. He was, in fact, one of nine judges at the Femina Miss India pageant this year, which is a little like tapping Donald Sterling to be the keynote speaker at a racial equality conference.

But then, the Femina Miss India pageant is by and large a sham. The 2014 edition had 24 participants and awarded 23 prizes. Some of the titles may mislead you into thinking this is an event about the brains (Miss Sudoku) or the heart (Miss Iron Maiden) but truer indicators are Miss Ramp Walk, Miss Beautiful Body and -- my favorite -- Miss Water Baby. 

Nisha Pahuja's "The World Before Her" tries to expose the brittleness of this facade. In this film, which was awarded the Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca in 2012, Pahuja follows two girls living in two extremes of society. Ruhi Singh aspires to be Miss India and is going through the training camp organized especially for that purpose. Meanwhile, Prachi Trivedi is an instructor with the Durga Vahini, the women's wing of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization VHP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). Pahuja was the first filmmaker ever allowed to film the VHP's training program. 

The documentary suggests that orthodoxy and modernism are both portals to their own set of vices. The Miss India aspirants have to sit through cringe-inducing Botox sessions to make their faces more "harmonious," listen to instructions on how to jut their boobs and ass out and parade -- with their faces covered -- for a judge who just wants to see their "hot, beautiful legs." The extremely young girls in the Durga Vahini camp have to get up at 4am, run laps in the blistering heat, learn how to fire rifles while sitting for sermons about Hinduism, "the world's supreme religion," and how Muslims and Christians are their enemies.

Pahuja revealed in a telephone conversation that she was very scared of the VHP's reaction to the film. In the past, hardline Hindu extremists have torn down posters featuring an actress' bare back and filed lawsuits against publishers for books portraying Hinduism in unflattering light. The chances of them raging against this film's release were a gambler's dream. After all, the film's most moving scene has Prachi choking up in gratitude to her father, who used to punish her with a heated iron rod, as she says, "Knowing I'm a girl child, he let me live. That's the best part."

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Thankfully, they didn't protest. Pahuja says they have "embraced the film." She believes they are so proud of what they're seeing on screen and it's so emblematic of their ideology that they don't find anything wrong with it. When she met a leader of the organization for screening the film in their Durga Vahini camps, they didn't have a problem with the hate speech spoken by their members or by their incendiary demonstrations, but by visuals of the bikini-clad Miss India participants.

Trouble came from elsewhere, however. In an interview with the New York Times in January, Jonathan Shainin, news editor of the New Yorker's website, said the biggest threat to press freedom in India was "pusillanimous ownership of newspapers by people who lack journalistic integrity, or even have massive business interests in other places that are much larger than their publishing interests." "The World Before Her" has had to bear the brunt of  that cowardice.

The Times of India is the most widely read English newspaper in the subcontinent. It is owned by the Bennett & Coleman Co. Ltd, a group that also publishes Femina.  Before release, the filmmakers were asked to remove a promotional clip posted online that focused on the Botox session from the pageant. The original news story at Scoopwhoop still stands, but the YouTube link no longer works. 

Things only became worse. Perhaps infuriated by the ugly truths tumbling out of their closet because of "The World Before Her," the group apparently boycotted the film on release. The Times of India and other papers owned by the group did not run reviews of the film, nor did they feature it in any way.". The Times of India and all other papers owned by the group refused to run reviews of the film, nor would they feature it in any way. There was public outrage over the decision, as people took to social media to vent their frustration against such twisting of journalistic principles. 

When asked why the Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid also owned by the BCCL group, didn't run a review of the film, its editor Meena Baghel stated her paper didn't review documentaries. People promptly sent her links of recent documentaries that the Mumbai Mirror had reviewed, such as "Gulabi Gang". Baghel's response?

Matters have taken a slight turn for the better. Somewhat surprisingly, the Mumbai Mirror on June 11 featured the film as a "Must Watch." That the "free screening" they were promoting wasn't really free was a welcome return to their usual journalistic standards. Pahuja herself has few grudges against the conglomerate she's upset. She says, "They are a corporation and they obviously have to answer to their shareholders. They would want to protect their properties."

"The World Before Her" deserves better than this. It may feel like a horror story in the beginning, as it exposes the unrelenting crappiness in this world for women. Praising it as "timely" is incorrect, since the label implies there was a time in the past when the film would be "ahead of its time" or a day in the near future when it can be dismissed as obsolete. Unfortunately, that's not true. The stories and themes in the film are plucked from memories, our lives and our headlines. There seems to be no sign of that changing.

This weekend, Pahuja's excellent documentary expands to more cities in India, with showtimes available here. Meanwhile, for Netflix subscribers in the U.S., the film is available for streaming. You should see it, because while it may horrify you to see the insensitivity and brutality of institutions across the spectrum of society, it's heartening to see the individuals embedded in these institutions holding on to their humanity. "The World Before Her" may not tell you who is right, but it has the maturity to recognize not everyone is completely wrong either.


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