Transcending Tribeca: Nisha Pahuja of The World Before Her 

Transcending Tribeca: Nisha Pahuja of The World Before Her 

Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. The majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha spoke with the filmmakers behind her absolute favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Nisha Pahuja’s documentary The World Before Her had its world première on Thursday, April 19; it just won the festival’s top honor for documentaries. More information is available at the Tribeca site, the film’s website, and the film’s Facebook page.

Some of the Q&As at Tribeca get goofy. After Postcards From The Zoo, a charming, Hou Hsiao-hsien-derived Indonesian feature about an abandoned girl growing up in a zoo and on the streets, one of the stars spontaneously performed a magic trick, as his character does in the film. Before the dizzying Finnish thriller Rat King, the director got up to inform the audience that it was 3:30 a.m. his time and he was going to bed rather than stay for a Q&A, but that he knew the one question everyone would want to ask, related to the movie’s big final twist—which he revealed up front. After the terrific horror/mystery Resolution, co-star Vinny Curran draped himself across several front-row seats and peppered his directors, co-star, and crew with questions, then asked himself a question, which he promptly got up and answered.

But the Q&A after Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her was all business. Pahuja was born in India and moved to Canada with her family when she was 3, but still maintains a relationship and a fascination with her birth country. The World Before Her—her third film, after Diamond Road and Bollywood Bound—dives deep into two Indian subcultures that outsiders may not know, and the questions about both came fast and furious from fascinated viewers who wanted to know more about each side of the story. Half of the film goes behind the scenes at the 2011 Miss India beauty pageant, where contestants participate in a 30-day beauty boot camp. The focus is on polish, poise, and grooming, but Pahuja speaks to some of the contestants—particularly Ruhi Singh, whose parents are unusually devoted and supportive, and Ankita Shorey, the eventual winner—about how the seemingly superficial contest represents a rare chance for a woman in India to have a voice, a place in society, and earning power equal to a man’s. 

The other half of the documentary follows Prachi Trivedi, a leader at a religious fundamentalist camp, which trains young girls in physical skills and gun use, and teaches them about the Durga Vahini’s militant Hindu beliefs. Pahuja catches prepubescent girls, caught up in the fervor of their teachings, talking about their desire to kill Muslims who disrespect Hinduism, and “slit the throats” of anyone who tries to claim Kashmir from India. But she spends more time at home with Prachi, a woman in her early 20s who has found purpose and self-respect as a camp leader, after finding none at home with her father, a traditionalist who repeatedly says her purpose is to get married and make babies. In the movie’s most chilling sequence, he calmly describes disciplining her by burning her feet with a red-hot iron rod; meanwhile, Prachi smiles on the sidelines, checking her foot for the scar.

The World Before Her is full of such startling moments, but Pahuja’s greatest accomplishment is in the way she finds parallels between two Indian movements that have open contempt for each other—one traditionalist and nationalistic, one openly Westernized—that both rely on disenfranchised young women looking for power and an identity in a modern India where girl children are still regularly aborted to make way for sons. Tasha spoke with her about the three-year process of making the film, being the first documentarian allowed inside a Durga Vahini camp, her open frustration with Prachi’s beliefs, and how India is still looking for a unified identity. 

The A.V. Club: You started your career working as a researcher for Canadian filmmakers like John Walker and Ali Kazimi. What did you learn from working on their films?

Nisha Pahuja: From John, what I learned was how to be with people and how to relate to people and how to make sure—it was amazing, actually. He got amazing access to human beings, and he explained that it was because he let them get to know him as much as he got to know them. He would let his guard down, and it was really important that there was no power dynamic, no bizarre power equation in the relationship. That I really learned from him. Also, from both of them, I think just what it takes to tell a good story. 

AVC: Where did this particular story start for you?

NP: The first idea was actually to just basically use the Miss India pageant as sort of a prism, as a way to explore India as a country in transition, going through growing pains. Understanding the role of women, and how women were both being used to uphold a certain kind of identity, and were partly shaping that identity, the Indian identity. Eventually, I started to delve into the subject more, and I came across fundamentalists and feminists, two forces that are opposed to pageants for very different reasons. Once I got into the opposition, it became more interesting to me. Then I met Prachi, and I began to realize the balance had to shift, and that each world had to be represented equally. 

AVC: How did you meet Prachi?

NP: Prachi was actually one of the first footsoldiers of the movement I met. What I did was, I landed in India and I started to make phone calls. The fundamentalists have a media department, so you call them up and they try to blow you off, but I kept phoning them, and eventually they backed down and I met them. Somehow I managed to meet a real higher-up in the movement, and that person led me to an editor of a right-wing newspaper. That editor led me to the footsoldiers, and I met a lot of them. There were some really scary guys. The men were amazing, they were really intense. But out of the women, Prachi was the one that really stood out.

AVC: You only see Prachi working with girls. Is it gender-segregated so the men are off working with young boys of the same age?

NP: Yeah, it is, actually. The camps are divided. The women work with the young girls, and the men work with the young boys.

AVC: You were talking to someone after the Q&A about how the camps are funded. The kids pay a nominal amount of money to live at the camps for a period?

NP: Yes, a very small amount of money. It’s 100 rupees, which is about $2. Some of them can’t afford that, so if they can’t, the fees are overlooked and the organization will provide for them. 

AVC: What do they get for $2? Is it just a day camp, or do they live there?

NP: No, they live there. So we all lived there. We all lived at that camp for about 10 days. What happens is, the camps are basically 10 days, and they’re only once a year. There’s a smaller camp that’s about three or four days, which isn’t as intensive, and then there’s the larger camp. That happens every year, and the girls go every year. Some of the girls, like the girls in the film, not all of them will go back to the next camp. Some of them will, some of them won’t. 

AVC: You mostly seem very patient when you’re interviewing your subjects, but there’s a point at the end where you really sound exasperated with Prachi, where you ask “Why are you supporting this fundamentalist system that’s keeping women down, holding you back personally?” Did you feel that kind of frustration generally, or was that just a moment where it popped through?

NP: I think for me at that moment in the interview, I was so sad for her, and I wanted to shake her. I think it was just like, “Don’t you see? Don’t you get it? Do you understand what your situation is?” But there were often times where I did get very frustrated with her, and she with me. Because it wasn’t like she always understood me, right? My perspective is my perspective, and her perspective is her perspective. Both of them are right, right? Because it’s subjective.

AVC: Her relationship with her father seemed very strange. He openly says everything she is doing is wrong and that he won’t allow it, but she clearly has freedom, because she’s going out to work in the camp regularly. He says awful things about her and her lack of rights and the future he’s planned for her, and she just laughs. What did you make of that?

NP: They have a very strange dynamic, Prachi and her father. Most Indian families want a son. So I think Prachi’s father raised her like a boy, in part. They do everything together. The scene of her washing the dishes, that’s so rare. It’s not like she does that stuff very often. She’s usually with her dad, running around doing these fundamentalist activities. I think Prachi’s father feels this societal pressure that she’s of a marriageable age now, she’s a girl. So even though he may secretly not want to let her go, because he is so close to her, he kind of has to. 

AVC: Given his feelings on women and their place, how did he relate to you, as an independent filmmaker and an influence in his daughter’s life?

NP: I think because I’m from abroad and I’m kind of Prachi’s mother’s age, I think they had respect for me, because I’m from the West, because I clearly have some level of education. But it took them a while. He was always guarded. At first he was very guarded, very suspicious. And I think a little bit nervous that I was going to ruin his daughter. Maybe influence her. 

AVC: Did you influence them to watch the Miss India pageant footage? Would they have watched it if not for you? They seem so horrified by it as a sign of everything going wrong with India today.

NP: What’s very interesting is, they protest the pageant, right? Initially, the idea of the film was, I was going to film the camp, but then I was also going to film them protesting the Miss India pageant, because they usually do it. They do it every few years. But they didn’t this year. [Laughs.] So I thought, “I’ve somehow got to have these two storylines converge. They need to meet somehow—otherwise I’m just going to have these bizarre parallel realities. They need to somehow meet.” So I asked them to watch. 

AVC: Were the participants on either end of the story aware of the other story you were telling? Did she know you were interviewing people in the pageant? Did the pageant people know you were in the fundamentalist camps?

NP: The pageant people didn’t know, but the fundamentalists did. The pageant people knew I was filming voices of opposition, that I was including people that were opposed to the pageant. They didn’t know I was filming at a Durga Vahini camp.

AVC: The film states that you’re the first filmmaker to be able to film inside these camps. How did you get that access?

NP: When you decide you want to do something, it’s kind of a combination of, you know you’re going to do it, how are you going to do it? It takes a certain amount of tenacity, and you just have to keep at it. It takes a certain amount of strategizing. And then it takes luck. So I had luck on my side, for sure. 

I knew that in order for me to get that kind of access, I was going to have to spend time in India. I couldn’t do it from Toronto. I was going to have to be there, because people in India will call you, and you have to go. These people are busy, their schedules change. It wasn’t like they were going to let me in because they liked me after 10 minutes. I was going to have to continue to go and prove myself. So I went to all of these rallies. I was constantly going to fundamentalist rallies. I was constantly going to other events. I was always meeting people. And then Prachi’s family helped, because Prachi’s father is fairly powerful in the organization.

AVC: What did you learn on either side, either the fundamentalist or pageant side, that actually shocked you?

NP: The bags over the head in Goa. That was sad. [In one of the Miss India publicity events, the pageant director, Marc Robinson, takes the contestants to a beach and makes them wear shapeless sacks over their heads and upper bodies to they can be paraded back and forth and judged solely on their legs. He’s eerily repetitive and overeager in talking about his “dream” of judging women by their legs alone. —ed.] I didn’t know how to feel about that stuff, because Marc is such a lovely man, he really is, and I don’t think he knew what he was doing. I don’t think his intention was negative. I think he just thought it was fun. I don’t think he understood the connotations of it at all. Whereas for somebody like me, or somebody from the West, I remember my crew, we all were just like, “Dear God, this is…” [Trails off, pause.] “So dark.”

AVC: Is it possible that wasn’t intended to be dehumanizing so much as it was in imitation of the “challenges” models go through on Western reality-competition shows?

NP: It could be. It’s a funny thing, how we imitate culture. In some ways, I think what’s happening in India is that it’s finding its voice again, as a country.  It’s kind of finding its identity, because it’s at a very interesting crossroads because of the influence of the media since ’92. It’s trying on things. It’s trying to figure out what it is, so it interprets something as modernity, when in fact, for us, it isn’t. It’s the same as here in the West—when people do yoga or take up Eastern religion, people in India laugh at it. They find it silly. They will mock it sometimes, because it’s being interpreted in a way it was never intended to be. 

AVC: On the beauty-pageant side, was it difficult getting the access you got into their process? Was it at all comparable to the access you got at the camps?

NP: The beauty pageant wasn’t difficult to get access into, it was difficult to get the kind of access that I needed to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it. It was difficult to actually maintain the access. And then part of it was, the girls were constantly busy. Their schedules kept shifting, and they’re divided into groups. It was always mayhem, because they’re in constant training. And you don’t want to keep filming girls in training. You want to film them on their own, experiencing the pageant. You want to actually follow a couple of characters through the process, so you’re with them on their journey. So that kind of access wasn’t available. 

AVC: The film just focuses on two or three contestants closely. Do you have a huge amount of cutting-room-floor footage where you spent that kind of time with all the contestants just in case one of them won or did something significant later?

NP: Tons. [Laughs.] So much. I always knew Ruhi was going to be in the film. Always. Simply because she was the most emotional. She always wore her heart on her sleeve. There’s a lot of stuff with her that we didn’t use of her being insecure and scared, so I always knew Ruhi was going to be in the film. Ankita says some of the strongest statements about women and feminism, so I knew she was going to be a voice, I didn’t know how large of a voice. In some ways, you’re casting for narrative. And then also, you’re thinking of what is it for the women. What do each of them bring to the film, and what are they adding to the larger ideas about women that I’m trying to put forth, and the country?

AVC: Living in a hotel for 30 days and bringing in all these trainers and consultants and plastic surgeons to work on them must be expensive. Does the pageant cover that, or is it like the camps, where they have to pay for themselves?

NP: The pageant pays for the training, so they don’t have to pay for their hotel or their food. But what they have to do is they have to pay for, they have to be dressed to the nines, you know? They have to have fantastic outfits, shoes, bags, jewelry. It’s expensive. Some of them can’t afford it. Their families take out loans, and it’s very expensive. 

AVC: What’s the process of getting to that level? Do they come up through local beauty pageants?

NP: Some of them do. Some of them are models, and Miss India has scouts that they work with across the country, certain kinds of modeling agencies. There are a lot of pageant training programs in India. Then, of course, the Internet. There’s a myriad of ways that girls are selected. 

AVC: Did you yourself know going in that there were so many parallels between the training-and-indoctrination program in the camps and the pageant or was that something you discovered in the process?

NP: I knew that because I was following this idea. It’s pretty obvious, right? You’re in a camp where girls are meant to become little warriors, and you’re in a camp where they’re meant to become beauty queens. So you know you’re going to follow a journey. There’s going to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, and hopefully some kind of a change. And that there will be parallels that emerge, simply because you’re following a similar process in each world. So I knew that was going to happen. That I would have points to compare and contrast, and there would be parallels.

AVC: What was your support like in terms of filming in India? How easy is it to show up there with a crew and get your footage?

NP: It’s a nightmare. Here’s the thing: because I’ve spent so much time in India, every film I’ve made has been partly shot in India, I know the country. I understand it. I speak the language, so it’s familiar to me. But what’s happened now—it used to be that four or five years ago, it was okay, you could show up with a camera, you could shoot, and nobody would really stop you. They might ask questions, but now, because there are constant terrorist attacks and constant threats, security is so vigilant. We were shut down—the cops were after us a lot. But I had an amazing fixer. He was very good at dealing with them. 

AVC: Shut down when?

NP: Well, basically shooting outside. We had to pack up and leave. We weren’t allowed to shoot.

AVC: Like when you were filming the parade, for instance?

NP: They were fine with that. The parade was okay. It was when we were shooting the streets of Bombay, just doing visuals. It was just a lot of quickly getting shots and running. [Laughs.] Beating it out of there. “Let’s go somewhere else where there aren’t any police officers.” [Laughs.]

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