The Horrors of India’s Beauty Pageants in The World Before Her


After watching the young beauties competing for the title of Miss India suffer Botox injections, skin-whitening cleanses, and the shouts of a choreographer who demands they “now try not to sound like elephants,” Western viewers of Nisha Pahuja’s vital, unsettling doc The World Before Her aren’t likely to be ready to see pageant queens as progressive idealists. But Pahuja contrasts these fussed-over ingenues with the education other young women face in a camp run by Hindu nationalists: “Is it really necessary to leave your homes just for your egos and go chasing a career?” they’re asked. “Can you really hide your natural weakness of character?” That makes the pageant stuff easier to take—especially later, when a contestant is asked on a TV broadcast what she would do if she had a son who told her he was gay. “I would probably slap him,” she says. “But choosing your sexuality is one’s own decision, and if he wants to go ahead with that I have no problems.” Watching this telecast, grumbling with her Hindu nationalist father, is young Prachi, so staunch a believer that she can speak calmly about the possibility of planting bombs to defend her religion. Prachi favors ill-fitting T-shirts, has no interest in romance, and describes herself as “boy and girl both,” someone “not made by God” for the marriage and child-rearing her father insists are her only proper role. Yet there she is, a leader in what some have called the “Indian Taliban,” promulgating against everything that might make her happy. With extraordinary access, Pahuja illuminates extraordinary conflicts and contradictions facing modern girls in a country even less ready for them than ours.