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.