Filmaker Nisha Pahuja with Derek Rogers
By Danny Peary
The World Before Her fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I was hoping that might have played here back in May. More than a year after this India-set film about two completely different young women–one a beauty pageant contestant, the other a militant Hindu fundamentalist–was chosen the Best Documentary at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, it got a limited American release through Cinedigm. However, after playing in fifteen cities, in New York City, as part of DOCURAMA series, Nisha Pahuja’s film seems to have disappeared again. That makes little sense because of its increased relevance. As Cinedigm’s publicity release correctly stated, “With the safety of women in India making headlines around the world, Pahuja’s film brings attention to the historical and modern forces that are impacting on the very survival of girls and the rights of women who today are forging their own identities.”
I did the following long intro and interview with Pahuja at last year’s TFF just before she took home its best-doc prize, and before the film was selected the Best Canadian Feature at the 2012 Hot Docs Film Festival and the Best Foreign Film at Michael Moore’s 2012 Traverse City Film Festival. Following the Q&A, check out two new questions I posed to her and her responses.
Ever since I saw Nisha Pahuja’s endlessly enlightening The World Before Her a few days before it was selected Best Documentary at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, I think about it. I wonder what has happened to her two young, fascinating subjects since the acclaimed Canadian director (in photo with cinematographer Derek Rogers) turned off her cameras.
I still care about Ruhi Singh (in pink bikini, to left), the epitome of the “modern” Indian woman who competes in the 2010 Miss India contest, and Prachi Trivedi (with finger raised, below), the angry, brilliant quasifeminist, whose potential for being a proponent for women’s rights is being squashed, paradoxically, by the backward, women-oppressing Hindu fundamentalism to which she devotes her life.
From a place of ignorance, I try to fathom changing India and all its complexities. After the movie, which was produced by Pahuja and Cornelia Principe and executive produced by Ed Barreveld, was voted Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs, Pahuja herself was mystified by the reason her film about these two young women in a far-way world “was striking a chord with people here.” Here’s a possible reason. On the surface it is only about two young non-celebrity women in the other hemisphere who we’d never know of if not for the movie. It seems to be only about them and, as an extension, women in modern and not-so modern India. But my guess is that it is really about zillions of women all around the world and their similar issues, primarily their desire for freedom. Going further, it is about how their country, and Pahuja’s second country, India, relates to all of us, particularly as the most populated democracy in the world becomes more Westernized.
In the film’s production notes, Pahuja (who won Gemini Awards for Bollywood Bound and the series Diamond Road) states: “I have been going to India now for nearly 15 years and the more time I spend there, the more I realize what India does best is teach. It teaches one to see that assumptions are never safe and nothing is simple. Sabira Merchant, one of the pageant voices in the film, says, ‘There are two Indias.’ I would say there are many Indias and they are doing battle with each other now, just as they always have been. The battle I chose to focus on is the battle between tradition and ‘modernity,’ fundamentalism and capitalism and how it plays out on the bodies of women. In some ways what hangs in the balance is not just the future of women in this country but the very future of the country itself–for how can democracy flourish in a place so obsessed with sons it aborts 750,000 girls every year? Distressing. But I remind myself that profound change can only happen slowly and it is futile to hate or judge. Time is not the same the world over….India is at a very interesting crossroads and more and more, women are demanding to be heard. Sadly, just as they are staking their claim in this new country, so the violence and oppression against them continues to mount. As history has shown repeatedly, however, freedom has to be fought for and so, women are fighting.” Near the end of the TFF, I did the following interview with the extremely personable and engaging Nisha Pahuja over breakfast. That night, I was delighted that her film won the festival’s top documentary prize.
Danny Peary: I read that you live in Toronto. Are you known in the documentary community there?
Nisha Pahuja: Yes, I’m part of the community. I live in Toronto but am there only about half the time. I go back the forth between Toronto and Bombay.
DP: Have you liked being at the Tribeca Film Festival?
NP: It’s fantastic. I love being here, particularly since the Tribeca Film Institute helped the film financially. Gucci was partnered with it to support three films with women-centered issues, and ours was one. They actually approached us. In November 2009, we were invited to pitch the film at IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Ryan Harrington, who is with the Institute, saw the pitch and invited us to submit the film.
DP: The pitch must be much different from the final product.
NP: Yes, actually. The pitch was that we were going to follow girls through the Miss India pageant. But the Durga Vahini fundamentalist camp wasn’t part of it.
DP: Is Durga Vahini known all over India?
NP: Durga is an Indian warrior goddess and Durga Vahini means essentially an Army of Durga. Its camps take place all over India and there are about three hundred girls who attend camp every year. [See photo of 14-year-old with rifle at camp's graduation ceremony.] Everyone knows about the male right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups but very few know about the Durga Vahini. I found out from Prachi.
DP: So originally you had no thought of having a parallel story about a girl in the Hindu fundamentalist camp?
NP: No, but the pitch did include the fundamentalists. We always had that angle to be part of the film.
DP: Was the angle that Hindu fundamentalists are against the pageant?
NP: Yes. The fundamentalists were preparing to protest the pageant and we were going to follow that. They don’t protest annually, just every few years, and it turned out that they didn’t protest in 2010. I knew I had access to the beauty pageant in which Ruhi would be a contestant, but since I hadn’t gained access yet to the camp, it wasn’t part of my pitch. However, I had met Prachi.
DP: How did you meet her?
NP: Basically through the editor of a right-wing newspaper, whom I met through one of the big-wigs in the fundamentalist movement. I told him I wanted to talk to people on the ground, real foot soldiers who engaged in acts of violence and were willing to die for the cause. He introduced me to a number of young people. Prachi stood out.
DP: Where do Prachi and Ruhi live?
NP: Prachi lives in Aurangabad, which is where the camp also took place, though there are camps that happen across India. Ruhi is from Jaipur, though I believe right now she is living in Bombay.
DP: Among the minor characters in the beauty pageant scenes is Pooja Chopra, whose brave mother took her and left her husband, who wanted to kill their female baby. Your film basically sets up a parallel between Prachi and Ruhi, so was Pooja also part of your original concept and where does her story come in thematically?
NP: I met Pooja in 2009 during a research trip. It was then that she told me about nearly being killed as a newborn. After she won the 2009 Miss India pageant I knew I had to follow her for a bit and have her as a minor character. The idea at that point was that I would focus on the 2010 pageant and we would meet Pooja organically through that storyline–often the winners of earlier pageants come in and meet the present batch of girls. So we would introduce her that way and then her trajectory would be: former winner who is on her way to becoming well known gives up her crown in 2010. We shot all that but we weren’t able to raise the money to shoot the 2010 training camp and pageant so we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to make Pooja work in the film. It was only after Prachi told me about being grateful that her father hadn’t killed her that I knew we had to get Pooja into the film, too, because thematically that is a moment when both worlds come together and in such a powerful way.
DP: For me the editing process, going back and forth between the two stories, would have been the most difficult part of making this film.
NP: It was. I work with a brilliant editor named Dave Kazala. It took months for us to look through and process all the footage. The film took shape in the editing room. We knew we wanted to parallel the two worlds but we wanted sidebar characters, that we eventually lost. We structured the film so that there would be an intersection of the worlds. We knew a direct collision wasn’t going to happen because there wasn’t going to be a protest by fundamentalists of the pageant. So we couldn’t build toward that physical collision. Instead we built toward an ideological collision of the two belief systems. That’s how we structured the film. We decided that each time we went to one of the worlds, we would learn something else; and that the film would progressively grow darker and darker.
DP: You had a woman from each of those worlds in your film, which creates an pretty easy parallel, but did you in reality think they had parallel lives and dealt with some of the same issues?
NP: Without a doubt. They live in the same country, they share the space. The reality of India is the reality of India and they just happen to be living in these two parallel universes. The intersections are very clear. They’re struggling with the same things as women. There’s one scene I deeply regret I couldn’t include. I am chatting with one of the girls in the fundamentalist camp and I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She answers, “An aeronautical engineer.” I was blown away and asked her if she’d be able to do it, and she says, “Probably not because my parents want me to get married. I don’t want to get married, I want to be an aeronautical engineer.” I asked her why she didn’t want to get married and she said beautifully in Hindi, “Because I want to carve my own identity in this world, I want to live my dreams. And I don’t want to marry a man and be known because of him–I want him to be known because of me.” I wish I could have kept it in because it makes you realize that all the women in this country just want the same thing, which is freedom. But all these things are being imposed on them.
DP: Prachi is Hindu, but what is Ruhi?
NP: Ruhi is Hindu, too. In fact about 80% of the people in India are Hindu, and certainly the girls in the pageant were. It’s safe to assume that the majority of the girls in the pageant are religious. Most people in India have a belief in God or a higher power and are religious—however, most are not fundamentalists.
DP: At the beginning of the film, the pageant is presented almost like a feminist, political alternative, an opportunity to achieve economic equality with men, but as we watch it unfold, we see that something is off.
NP: Sure. It was deliberate that we portrayed the pageant as being so beneficial to women at the beginning, but then we kind of destructed it. In both camps actually, we start off lightly and introduce the world. Each world appears to be one thing and then becomes darker.
DP: There seems to be a parallel drawn immediately when you introduce a beauty camp and a fundamentalist camp. I’d say there is an indoctrination process in both, but at least the contestants can leave after the pageant is over and not be under anyone’s influence.
NP: Yeah, but even the pageant girls are indoctrinated in some sense. They’re taught diction, they’re taught how to speak in a certain way, they’re taught how to walk in a certain way. Once the three winners are selected, they will actually do training with knives and forks. They’ll learn etiquette and how to eat properly. They’ll be polished for when they go on to international pageants. They do change through an indoctrination process. They change physically and in their thinking. There is also a change in the way they look at themselves and in their world view—they become more Westernized. A lot of these girls come from small towns and their families may be more liberal than Prachi’s family, but they still come from relatively conservative environments.
DP: The contestants in the pageant initially seem to be independent thinkers, but then we see them follow all orders from pageant officials and all most totally conform. The one thing people reacted to at my screening was when during the middle of the pageant some of the contestants get Botox treatments because that’s what the pageant doctor suggested. Were you surprised to hear people gasp?
NP: Yes! I wasn’t sure if people were reacting because it was young girls undergoing this treatment or that there was a bit of coercion. They could have turned it down.
DP: It seems like there is a step by step process for the contestants and that one step is botox. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz when she gets the Hollywood treatment before meeting the Wizard.
NP: Exactly. There was actually a girl who refused the treatment, but most of them go through with it. They do it because the doctor comes on the second or third day of training and does a facial assessment and body assessment of each girl. He tells them what’s perfect and imperfect and what they need and where they’re going to inject the Botox. It’s incredible.
DP: For me there were a few scenes where they all look alike, as in The Stepford Wives.
NP: I’m Indian and they don’t look alike to me.
DP: It’s not that they’re Indian. I’ll watch a beauty pageant of contestants from the Midwest and they all the look the same. I can see there are several contestants in the Miss India contest, like Ruhi and Ankita, who don’t look at all alike really but when they’re all together and made up and dressed similarly, they do all look alike.
NP: It’s funny when Ruhi’s parents are going, “Which one is she?” They can’t tell them apart.
DP: Ankita was one of the three winners. I won’t say how Ruhi did, but I thought she was the prettiest contestant.
NP: I’ll tell her you said that. She’ll be so happy. She’s lovely, isn’t she? She has a very unconventional beauty.
DP: Are the losers totally disappointed or is it a positive experience?
NP: It’s fantastic. Even if you don’t win, you are given an incredible visibility. That pageant is watched nearly a billion people around the world. There are a lot of people in the beauty and fashion industry and the film industry who watch the pageant to look at the women. Once you’ve had that kind of training from people who are the top of their fields, photographers and fashion designers all want to work with you. Bollywood is the peak, the goal of all the contestants.
DP: Ruhi has the beauty to do it.
NP: It’s interesting you’d think that because in India she wouldn’t be considered beautiful at all. She has a very unconventional thing going on and has an amazing personality so she’s reality show material. She’d be seen as someone who would be great on TV. We shot the selection process when they had 120 girls and narrowed that down to 20. Some of the girls who were turned down knocked your socks off. I couldn’t believe it. But they were too dark or weren’t tall enough. Ruhi was told that her nose was too big. So she doesn’t have a feminine enough nose to make it in Bollywood.
DP: You say that all the losers have a lot of options but isn’t their confidence about their looks kind of destroyed? Especially since the doctor pointed out their flaws.
NP: Oh, yeah, it does affect them. It’s devastating when they lose. Even when they’re competing it’s difficult for them because although there is a real camaraderie among the girls, they are always competing against them and comparing themselves to them. There is one girl named Shweta who was very smart and was constantly questioning what was going on. She refused the Botox, thinking, “It’s ridiculous, I’m twenty, I’m here because people think I’m beautiful, I don’t need this.” That didn’t affect her chances of winning. She was beautiful and smart. The judges have their own criteria. When you go into that environment you can pretty much tell who is going to win. I’ve predicted the winner every year from the first year to the year I shot this film.
DP: I won’t give away who wins the pageant but I thought she won because she told the judges in the question and answer part of the competition that young girls can set an example for mothers who didn’t have opportunities. Was that the perfect answer?
NP: It was a great answer because it was delivered with real spontaneity. It seemed to come from her heart. She was very articulate.
DP: You show Prachi watching the pageant with her mother when the winner says that.
NP: I would think that both she and her mother would think about what was said. Prachi is a very interesting woman. In some ways she is a real feminist. Her mum clearly is a little afraid of her husband, Prachi’s father, so I wonder if that statement moved her.
DP: Everybody responds to her so it’s a huge shame she has the wrong outlet for her thinking. She’s being directed to the wrong place.
NP: Absolutely. I told her, “You’re fighting for something that’s oppressing you.”
DP: Part of her seems to know that. She even says it in the movie.
NP: Yes, it was heavy conversation. I thought it was a deeply sad moment for her. It was tough.
DP: She’s fighting something, trying to break out of something, but she can’t do it because her father is ready to marry her off. If she went off to college, would that change her life?
NP: She is in college, though we didn’t get into it. She’s twenty-six and lives at home but she’s in a local government-run law school near her house. She is around these other young people and it definitely has affected her level of confidence.
DP: I hope she’s also affected by her classmates divergent views.
NP: I’d like to think that but every time I speak to her and ask her about her beliefs, it’s clear that she hasn’t changed and she’s still working for the movement. So college doesn’t seem to have impacted her belief system. I’m surprised. She’s an incredible woman and I feel that if she’d been born in a different time and place or had a less complicated relationship with her dad she could channel her energy—which is so huge—into something positive and amazing.
DP: How did you feel about her father, who, too, is stuck in a culture?
NP: To be honest, I grew to really like him. I liked him because he has integrity and is a man of his word. I know that what he believes in is totally misguided and destructive and that he does have an ego, but he really is motivated by something bigger than him. He has a particular vision and a love for India and he works tirelessly for what he feels is the betterment of his country. Some of the things he laments I can understand–like the Westernization of India. It’s important to note that the fundamentalists aren’t opposed to modernization–they want infrastructure, paved roads, better education, technology–but they reject the materialism and influence of Western culture that many in the middle class are equating with modernity. I also empathize with Prachi’s dad because as you say, yes, he too is a product of this culture and his country’s history.
DP: I was surprised that he admitted he beats Prachi.
NP: I already knew that from Prachi so I wasn’t surprised, but that he admitted to me on camera that he beat her was extraordinary. I felt it spoke to the fact that he really trusted me. I spent so much time with him and her that things in their relationship didn’t really surprise me, except for his heating up the iron bar to burn her foot. That was shocking, as was what she said, that he had a right to do it because he had let her live when she was born. It’s so sad. Those moments were very difficult for me. With Prachi, at least I could be honest and react, which I did. As a filmmaker you have to let people say their peace, and then you respond.
DP: Prachi’s father is conservative in that he states she won’t be a woman until she is married and has a baby, but he doesn’t distinguish between a male baby and a female baby and that is more progressive than many fathers in India.
NP: I asked him if he wanted a son. Of course, he wanted a son, which is why he raised Prachi as a boy, but he told me that he and his wife decided that they were going to have only one child and that they were going to accept whatever gender that child was. They wouldn’t keep trying until they had a son.
DP: Talk about your choice of title. I’m sure it has more than one meaning, perhaps that there is a modern India but there is a misconception that everything is modern and not anti-modern. There’s a bit of irony when you see the title and realize Prachi’s future is limited. I think your title might have a question mark after it, but who wants a question mark.
NP: The title is many things. Her in the title refers to the women of course, but also to India. It’s also the World Before India. Before has the common meaning–here it is laid out for you–and it also refers to the past, the world that existed before.
DP: In regard to your first meaning of Before, are you talking about opportunities the women have–which is what I think your film is about?
NP: Sure. The world as it’s laid out for you is opportunities in the future. It’s also that these opportunities are yours for the taking. The title came to me when I was writing the proposal and thought of an image. This whole beauty pageant industry came into prominence in 1994 when two Indian women won the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants. This launched pageantdom in India. Sushmita Sen, who was Miss India and then Miss Universe that year, was the one who really started it all. There is an image of her back then that I found on the internet. She was nineteen and stunning and just full of optimism. It’s an amazing photograph of hope and life before this ingenue. The world was at her feet and that’s where my title came from. And then the title took on other meanings, too.
DP: Do you think of your film as optimistic or cautionary or just a glimpse at what’s going on with women in India today?
NP: I think it’s a glimpse of what’s going on. Ninety minutes can never be the whole picture, right? There are always so many other complexities and viewpoints. But I decided to focus very deliberately on these two choices, between modernity–so-called “modernity” actually–and tradition. Because they are fundamental choices. It really looks at how women are used to put forth two different ideas of India.
DP: What do you mean by “used?”
NP: Women have always been used to promote national identify.
DP: In the film’s production notes, you questioned whether the girls in the pageant, who think they have all kinds of freedoms, may be “simply trading one set of shackles for another.” You ask, “When so much goes into making us who and what we are, do we not have to question the very notion of freedom itself?” Are you saying that to have freedom without having a understanding of the politics in the world is useless and dangerous?
NP: That makes sense. I looked at those women in my film and felt they were trapped. Both sets of women. I looked at Prachi’s father and felt the same thing, because patriarchy is also a construct and all constructs define us and give us parameters. Rules are outlined for men and women. Men are victimized by being defined, although not to the same degree as women and they are the ones in power. Not all of them want to be in that position. That is another reason I didn’t dislike Prachi’s father. I felt he was a product of something–culture, history, the forces of the present day–that is so much bigger than him. I started to think how all of us are defined, no matter where we are, by things bigger than ourselves, that we can’t control, and sometimes can’t see and recognize. So how do define freedom? Are the women in the pageant more free or is it a different kind of imprisonment?
DP: I’m surprised that Prachi was allowed to go to college by her father. I wondered if she even had a cell phone.
NP: Oh, yeah. She’s connected to the world; she’s on Facebook, the whole bit.
DP: What would it be like if she and Ruhi were roommates?
NP (laughing): I think Ruhi would give her a makeover. That’s how they’d start! Prachi would teach Ruhi how to defend herself. Prachi is incredible. When I spent time with her while doing research, I was amazed by the way she intimidated men. They’d run away, literally There was once a group of men on the street and they all ran away. She’s an imposing figure. She’s about 5’7″ and is stocky and powerful, with a booming voice. She scares people. She’s gotten into so many fights, including knife fights at Hindu festivals. She carries a knife with her.
DP: Would Prachi try to indoctrinate a roommate?
NP: Oh, yeah. She tried to indoctrinate me! Constantly. One of her conditions for my shooing in the camp was that I had to sit through the lectures. But they were in Marathi and I don’t speak it. So I wasn’t brainwashed.
DP: Did you two hug?
NP: Oh, yeah, of course! Constantly! I love her. I think what she saw me as kind of an older sister, or maternal figure. She didn’t ask me about the world but I was a confidant. There were lots of things she told me both on and off camera that I didn’t use because I didn’t want to expose her.
DP: Her world is so different than yours so I wonder if you said something untrue to her if she’d see through you or be naive enough to accept it. Because there is such falseness going on in her world.
NP: You’re right. But she’s very smart and gets it. She has real integrity. What I found with the fundamentalists is that, as far out there as they are, the ones that I dealt with had an ethos, and that ethos gave them integrity.
DP: In the film’s production notes, you wrote about how filming the fundamentalists turned out to be easier than filming the pageant world because every time you wanted to film a contestant she’d be whisked away for some reason. You wrote: “So I lost hair and ate.”
NP: It was constant, and I was going, “I’m not going to have a film.” The film I sold was that I was going to follow girls through the process and that meant I’d have access to them. I wasn’t getting access so we’d just shoot whenever we could. It was really flying by the seat of our pants. We were lucky in that the girls were just so smart. And Ruhi was a trouper. She had no issues about being films. She always wanted to do it. She loved being on camera and was so open. She wore her heart on her sleeve.
DP: It was easy to relate to her parents. They are lower middle-class and figured she knew more about what she was doing, so didn’t put restrictions on her.
NP: They totally let her go. Her parents are actually well off but it doesn’t come across because they live in such a ramshackle home. That’s a whole other story. But they aren’t poor. Ruhi’s mum comes from a military background. Her father and granddad were in the military. When you’re in the military in a place like India, you automatically have a much more open world view and you’re more liberal. So she was raised in a liberal household and she is married to a lovely man and they support and love their daughter and let her do what she needs to do. They’re really proud of her and want her to succeed. And Ruhi wants to make them proud.
DP: What if you put the two fathers together?
NP (laughing): I actually think they’d get along really well. They’d have tea and complain about their daughters and how much money they cost them.
DP: Would Prachi’s father ask him if he knew any eligible young guys?
NP: Probably not! I think Ruhi’s dad is too liberal for him to ask that of him.
DP: At 26 is it hard to marry off Prachi?
NP: In some circles she would be. They’re getting nervous but I don’t think they’ll freak until she hits twenty-eight or thirty.
DP: She says doesn’t want to have kids. Do you think that’s true?
NP: Yes. She doesn’t want to get married or have children. She wants the freedom of a man.
DP: Has Prachi seen the film yet?
NP: I will be showing the film to her and others when I next return to India soon. Hopefully they will still want to talk to me!
DP: Showing the film to Prachi should be an experience. She’ll either love being a movie star or become a film critic and question what you chose to leave out of her! Good luck!
NP: I imagine Prachi is going to smoke a big fat cigar and tell me exactly what I did wrong.
DP: I’m sure you hope the best for both girls, but what do you see ahead of them?
NP: I’m a lot more optimistic about Ruhi. I think her road will be much more straightforward. She has very supportive parents who will back her and love her. I think we’ll see her on television. Prachi will have a tough time, a very challenging life. But I think she’ll get through it. I really do.
DP: Nisha, what has happened to your film since in played at Tribeca last year?
NP: The film went on to play at over 100 film festivals so far. It won about 12 awards and was on a few top ten lists for 2012. All in all a good run. I am happy that it is now being distributed in the United States and we are hoping for a small theatrical in the UK. I am currently in India trying to get a wider release here through activists, politicians, and NGOs. I doubt very much it will play in cinema halls because of the fear of the fundamentalists. But the film is so timely now because of the Delhi Gang Rape and the spotlight on India vis a vis women’s rights.
DP: Of course, all of us who have seen the film want to know what happened to the stars of your movie.
NP: I have not talked to Ruhi in some time but from her facebook posts she seems to be doing fairly well in the modeling world and certainly looks fabulous! Prachi is great! She got a new hairdo, is tweezing her eyebrows, and has finished her law degree and is working! She is still not married. Pooja Chopra, the young contestant who was to be killed as a new born female baby, has just released her first big Bollywood film and it looks like it’s a hit as they are planning a sequel!! It’s called..you ready? COMMANDO!! How cool is that? Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLIs-4oM3m4