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

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by Matt Brennan
September 16, 2013 2:00 PM
4 Comments
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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 pbs.org (through October 16), iTunes, Amazon Digital, and Vudu.

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4 Comments

  • 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 http://wp.me/p2qifI-1FT

  • 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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