Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Radius/TWC Takes 'It Follows' Wide in Theaters Friday, Pushing Back VOD Date Radius/TWC Takes 'It Follows' Wide in Theaters Friday, Pushing Back VOD Date Academy Governors: Let's Go Back to Five Best Picture Nominees Academy Governors: Let's Go Back to Five Best Picture Nominees Tom Ford Finally Unveils First Film Since 'A Single Man' with Producer George Clooney Tom Ford Finally Unveils First Film Since 'A Single Man' with Producer George Clooney Why It's Time for the Emmys to Adopt a Single 'Best Series' Category Why It's Time for the Emmys to Adopt a Single 'Best Series' Category The 10 Best Films I Saw at SXSW The 10 Best Films I Saw at SXSW The Breakout Star of Sundance's 2015 Grand Prize Winner Lands Her Next Plum Role The Breakout Star of Sundance's 2015 Grand Prize Winner Lands Her Next Plum Role Cannes 2015 Poster Sends a Love Letter to Ingrid Bergman Cannes 2015 Poster Sends a Love Letter to Ingrid Bergman Top Ten Box Office Takeaways: Why Women Like 'Insurgent' and No One Wants Sean Penn as 'The Gunman'  Top Ten Box Office Takeaways: Why Women Like 'Insurgent' and No One Wants Sean Penn as 'The Gunman' Why Hollywood is Discovering Colombia: from Medellín and Bogotá to Cartagena Why Hollywood is Discovering Colombia: from Medellín and Bogotá to Cartagena Arthouse Audit:  'It Follows' Expands as 'Danny Collins' Leads Openers and Unshelved David O. Russell Film Arthouse Audit: 'It Follows' Expands as 'Danny Collins' Leads Openers and Unshelved David O. Russell Film SXSW: Why Adrien Brody Bought a Run-Down Castle in Upstate New York to Save His Life SXSW: Why Adrien Brody Bought a Run-Down Castle in Upstate New York to Save His Life Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' Returns to Theaters Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' Returns to Theaters Watch: Lena Dunham Gets Abrasive in Seth Meyers' Writers Room as Hannah Horvath Watch: Lena Dunham Gets Abrasive in Seth Meyers' Writers Room as Hannah Horvath SXSW: How the Safdies Made Verité Drug Drama 'Heaven Knows What' with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie SXSW: How the Safdies Made Verité Drug Drama 'Heaven Knows What' with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie SXSW Wrap and Winners: Distributors, Pay Attention to These Films SXSW Wrap and Winners: Distributors, Pay Attention to These Films EXCLUSIVE: Horror Hit 'It Follows' Reveals Challenges of Theatrical vs. VOD EXCLUSIVE: Horror Hit 'It Follows' Reveals Challenges of Theatrical vs. VOD 'Two Lovers and a Bear,' Starring DeHaan and Maslany, Heads for Great White North 'Two Lovers and a Bear,' Starring DeHaan and Maslany, Heads for Great White North SXSW: ‘Trainwreck’ Star Amy Schumer Says “If You’re Against Feminism, You’re a Crazy Person” SXSW: ‘Trainwreck’ Star Amy Schumer Says “If You’re Against Feminism, You’re a Crazy Person” Will the 4th Book in the Millennium 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' Series Recharge Sony Sequels? Will the 4th Book in the Millennium 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' Series Recharge Sony Sequels? 9 Surprising Facts about Disney’s 'Cinderella' and One about 'Frozen Fever' 9 Surprising Facts about Disney’s 'Cinderella' and One about 'Frozen Fever'

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.
7
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 pbs.org (through October 16), iTunes, Amazon Digital, and Vudu.

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


E-Mail Updates






Festivals on TOH