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

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! September 16, 2013 at 2:00PM

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.
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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.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Documentary, Documentaries, The World Before Her


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.