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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.
Miss America
Miss America

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 roads.

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 (through October 16), iTunes, Amazon Digital, and Vudu.

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

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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.