Ravi Kapoor’s 2014 Miss India America opens on a comfortably familiar graduation ceremony. The sun is shining, the parents are proud, and the valedictorian is delivering a speech so oily it is a wonder her hat remains on her head. The girl, energetic and oblivious, is Lily Prasad, and as she orates on the value of winning, she points towards her father as an example of a man who has won, despite growing up in a slum in India.
“Well,” he mutters in the audience, apparently to the white family next to him, “not technically a slum.”
This moment too, with its awkward weight of the Indian American diasporic narrative, is familiar.
“Miss India America” is a beauty pageant for Desi girls in Los Angeles. Lily, the protagonist played by Tiya Sircar, enters after a humiliating break up with a high school boyfriend. But “Miss India America” is also a perfect designation for Lily, a character composed mostly of the pressure of fulfilling a certain post-immigration trajectory. Lily must always win. Her friends, family, and plans all exist in a careful hierarchy of winners and losers, success and non-success. Her neurosis is exacerbated by her father, a loving but often oblivious man. Having already and dramatically achieved success, Lily’s fathercomforts Lily with the fact that she, too, is a winner, rather than forcing her to confront deeper questions about her goals.
Her boyfriend’s desertion is not so much a break of heart as a break in the life plan: Harvard, Johns Hopkins, job as a neurosurgeon, house with a view, two well-behaved children. When this boyfriend embarks on a path different from her own, reading poetry and dating last year’s Miss India America, Lily sets off to win him back in the most clear-cut competition available to her.
And so, it is the Miss India America pageant that becomes the field to test Lily’s convictions, replete with delightfully bizarre supporting cast, pretensions, and moral dilemmas. The beauty of this setting absolutely lay in its loving details of Indian Los Angeles: in enrolling for the pageant, for example, Lily and best friend Seema find that the auspicious numbers in the competition order have aggressively been taken on the advice of various LA Panditjis. The opening dinner is populated by washed up pageant queens and Bollywood stars that form a Desi version of faded LA glamor. New Girl’s Hannah Simone plays Lily’s nemesis in the pageant, a woman named Sonia Nielson, aloof, enigmatic, but in tune with the emotional requirements of the pageant. When Sonia Nielson rounds out an exquisitely delivered speech from Shakespeare’s Richard III with a plaintive “meri beti,” adorning the prose with Hindi for maximum auntie appeal, Kapoor touches on something very sweet and funny about the game of approval many well-off, first generation Indian Americans play with the elder generation. All of it exists within a heady competition, stressed by surrounding mothers, aunties, and the open need of the girls themselves. Just the invocation of this syncretic world is fascinating, cathartic, comedic.
Another beauty of Miss India America is its constant comparison of the largely predictable Lily Prasad to the dynamic women around her. Her best friend Seema, played by Kosha Patel, is in some ways a better-rounded character. Seema’s complex of inferiority and genuine kindness is engaging and sweet in a film filled with overeager competition. Lily’s interaction with Lily’s emotional journey also has much to do with her mother, played by Meera Simhan, an award-winning poet who Lily largely dismisses. In struggling to understand her mother, Lily is also presented with an idea of success not quite comfortable for her. And, of course, the lovely Sonia Nielson presents a sharp contrast to Lily, who is confused and frustrated by Sonia’s total lack of neurosis. The fabric of Miss India America is textured and stretched by these definitively female energies, testing the boundaries of Lily’s narrow mind.
Ultimately, the conclusion of Miss India America feels like a first step. Lily comes to the understanding that winning is not, in the end, everything, but some of her engagement with ideas of compassion, even with the diasporic narrative as the backdrop for her own neurosis, seems shallow. The slums of India referenced in the first scene reappear at the end of the film, but in a way, shows Lily continues to be, still, stunningly uninformed about the complexity of her parents’ lives in their home country. But Lily has many years to tackle her own history, answer her own questions. Rather than engaging in these thorny topics, Miss India America instead shows Lily developing real gratitude for the community it details, borne of displacement and achievement. It is filled with tributes to this broad, subtle system of love: its women, its bharatnatyam studios, its drama, humiliations, paradoxes, and ultimately, its support.
Sagaree Jain is an undergraduate student at UC, Berkeley. She studies South Asian History, minors in English, and dreams of writing a thesis on the British Empire. She is spending the summer in Pune with a TATA International Social Entrepreneurs program to work in Corporate Social Responsibility.