The film by Nisha Pahuja is a gripping and eye-opening documentary. The World Before Her, opens with the statement, ‘In India, few avenues offer women financial stability or equality with men’. Perhaps that’s what inspired Pahuja to delve deeply into the ones that do.
Winner of Best Documentary at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, The World Before Her is a must-see film of the festival. It’s an immersive exploration into the lives of a handful of women living in India right now that goes from one pole to the other. On one extreme, the film follows the twenty contestants in the 2011 Miss India beauty pageant, which offers the beauty industry as a means of achieving empowerment for women. The other extreme is the Hindu revivalist movement, which runs fundamentalist camps, such as the controversial militant Durga Vahini camps. While one party may on the surface appear to be the antithesis of the other, both come with their own costs and both strive for the same goal: individual freedom for all women of modern India.
The World Before Her’s focus is on a battle that is going on in India today. This is a battle between tradition and modernity, fundamentalism and capitalism, patriarchy and equality, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and how all this plays out on the bodies of women. Today India is at a cultural crossroads thanks to the influx of western media, and women are now demanding to be heard. In a country that annually aborts 750,000 girls in favour of sons, women have good reason to stand up for their rights.
Director Nisha Pahuja was born in India to Indian parents, and raised in Toronto from the age of three, yet the content of her documentaries is fixated on her homeland.
Echonetdaily caught up with Nisha earlier this week as she returned home from India.
What were your parents’ reasons for leaving India?
My parents left India in the 1970s purely for economic opportunity and to give their children a chance at a better life. Canada at that time was governed by the very forward-looking Pierre Trudeau and he was a strong proponent of immigration.
Were you brought up as a modern girl or with a more traditional background?
I was raised in a fairly traditional family. My father was extremely conservative in most respects but he demanded that all his children be educated and have careers. Though I was supposed to be a doctor.
My mother was much more forward looking and understood the cultural conflict my brothers and I were constantly negotiating.
Have you had personal experience with either or both of the lifestyles depicted in the movie?
I am neither a beauty queen nor a fundamentalist!
Did you feel at ease with the subjects in their settings?
I felt at ease in both settings, though of course had issues with what was being done to the young women in both the worlds. That said, the Hindu fundamentalist camp was much more disturbing.
Were the subjects at all curious about your life away from India?
Yes, the Miss India contestants and the girls in the fundamentalist camp were constantly asking me questions about life in Canada, what I wore there and how I behaved etc. They were endlessly curious!
Did you feel compelled to speak to these young women on a personal level and was it difficult to keep your mouth shut, as it were?
Yes, to answer your question – I did feel compelled to speak to them as an older sister or a parent even. And with Prachi (the young fundamentalist), I often did, because we became very good friends through the process and remain so.
What was the emotion most stirred by both of the groups ?
Sadness, acceptance and an awareness of the complexity of India.
Did you make any bonds that have continued past the filming?
Absolutely. Prachi and I are still great friends. And I keep in touch with some of the other women from both camps.
Was there much if any material cut for being too intense for public viewing ?
Yes. There were scenes in the Hindu fundamentalist camp and a scene with Prachi and her father, where they discuss their political and religious beliefs, that my editor and I chose not to use. Sometimes we need to limit just how much hate is spread in the world. And sometimes we have to see it not as censorship but as responsibility both to the audience and the subjects in the film who may at some point change their world views.
Have you finished with this particular subject or is there more to explore in either of these areas?
I am definitely finished with Miss India but not quite finished with the idea of fundamentalism.
Are you satisfied that you completed what you set out to do? Do you feel you have made the statement and got the message across that you intended?
Save for a few images that I sorely missed, I feel my editor and I have made the best possible film we could have with the material I gathered. I think the complexity of emotions I felt shooting the stories and the desire to do that justice comes through. I think what also comes through is just how much this film was a labour of love on the part of everyone involved in it – both the crew and the subjects.
What did you do to maintain and/or regain your emotional equilibrium during and after the film was complete?
I have a great relationship with producer Cornelia Principe, editor Dave Kazala and associate editor Sean Kang. They helped immensely during production and post production in terms of being sounding boards. But actually processing what the film has meant to myself and audiences who are seeing it, that is something I have still not had time to do. I am still busy promoting it and starting other projects so there has been no time to understand the experience of having made it. That will come when it is meant to!