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

by Matt Brennan
September 16, 2013 2:00 PM
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"The World Before Her"
"The World Before Her"

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.


  • Sally Edelstein | September 17, 2013 9:10 AMReply

    In the great cultural cauldron of 20thcentury America there was one basic ingredient to being an American beauty- Caucasian.
    Well apparently that old fashioned recipe for prejudice is still being used by some when it comes to the racist reaction to the choice of an Indian American for Miss America.
    Xenophobia was and is as American as Miss America and Apple Pie. Only the nationalities change with time. Once upon a time, Irish or Italian was too exotic to be considered an all American beauty. Take a look at some vintage ideas of American beauty

  • pradeep kumar | September 16, 2013 5:04 PMReply

    Women empowerment is such an important issue facing India, but the trailer just portrays two extremes. Where is the large majority which lies in-between these two extremes? Hope the documentary just doesn't use TWO colors to paint the whole canvas.

  • pradeep | September 17, 2013 3:13 PM

    Yes Matt, I'm sure it is a well done documentary. I was not looking for a holistic presentation either... and I don't want to judge a film even before I've seen it. But I was a little apprehensive about showing modern India, presenting Modern Indian women as just these two...(going by the trailer) Rationally it is dumb to think that, but documentaries have so much power to form opinions, at times they can imprint false notions which may not be intended by the makers. as you have written if the docu has attempted to depict the spaces inbetween, I'm happy :) cheers thx for the reply. pradeep

  • Matt Brennan | September 16, 2013 8:25 PM

    Pradeep, the film does focus wholly on the two groups mentioned above, largely, one supposes, because a holistic portrait of women in India would be nearly impossible in a single film. I do think the film succeeds in finding many shades of complexity among the women it depicts, though - indeed, where it is best is in the space between the extremes, which it attends to admirably.

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