Interview: Nisha Pahuja

Just after her documentary The World Before Her won the Best Documentary Feature award at the Tribeca film festival and shortly before the Canadian director would win the award for best Canadian Documentary Feature at Hot Docs this year, Nisha Pahuja sits at the top of the stairs in a building at U of T for our interview. It’s the only place removed enough from the hustle and bustle of media below, some of whom are also eagerly awaiting to talk to her, and it’s easy to see why.

The relaxed and confident Pahuja is there to promote an extremely timely and deftly executed film. In The World Before Her, the director spent several years in India looking at two vastly different views of womanhood that are often coming into conflict with one another. Pahuja looks at the contestants of a highly publicized beauty pageant with nationwide implications for the women involved, all of whom are intensely smart, articulate people whom are often objectified by the world at large. On the flip side of that equation in the exact opposite direction, Pahuja looks at one young woman that’s enlisted into a military/husbandry training program run by Hindu fundamentalists often know for terrorist-like activities.

For these women the future isn’t yet written, but Pahuja captures them at moments in their lives that will forever define their futures. Balancing the personal with the political and religious, Pahuja creates a moving portrait of coming of age without skewing either sides of these cultural constructs.

Pahuja sat down and talked to Dork Shelf about gaining access to two very different worlds and how the movie ultimately came together in two parts.

Dork Shelf: The film comes from two very separate points of view. Did the film originally come together as a whole or as two separate parts?

Nisha Pahuja: Originally it was a film that was just about the pageant, and a look at how the fundamentalists, and also the feminists, that were opposed to it as kind of a sideline story, Eventually, with the more time I spent in India and the more time I spent with the people in the fundamentalist movement, the more I sort of wanted to give a bit more screen time to them to have them weigh in a bit more. I was also trying to do the same thing with the feminists, but as I was cutting we realized it was just too much. We made it just about these two kids.

DS: It’s interesting because a lot of what the film deals with is a sort of cultural intelligence from both sides that you don’t often get a chance to see. These are very articulate people on both sides, and that’s something I think a lot of people might be shocked to see. Were you surprised on the fundamentalist side as to just how well formed their arguments were, as scary as they might be?

NP: When you say arguments, what are you referring to? I assume that you aren’t referring to their rantings directed at Muslims and Christians, because there’s not much surprising about that anti-Western stuff, but I did find a lot of their views amazing. Did it surprise me? No, not really, because I had read a fair bit of stuff on them before. I knew where their anti-Western stance was coming from, but also within that same stance is their anti-women stance. They’re not just opposed to just the materialism of the west and the sort of erosion of culture – which is definitely also taking place in India – they are also afraid of women wanting freedom. That’s a very Western concept. And that I have a huge problem with, of course, but I wasn’t surprised. What I think I was surprised by was how modern Prachi really is. That was surprising.

DS: On the other side of things, you have the girls in the beauty pageant who are doing something generally derided intellectually, but they are extremely smart and savvy people.

NP: It’s a shock, isn’t it?

DS: They definitely have a real sense of what they want from the pageant overall, but they’re also taking a lot of orders from people, much like the girls in the fundamentalist camp. Was that dichotomy something you always wanted to explore while cutting the film together?

NP: Yeah! Once Prachi told me about the girl divining camp, for it sort of became a no-brainer in a way. Even in the original concept of the film when it was just going to be about the women in a beauty contest in India, underlying that was always this idea about how women are being used as a way to convey a sense of what India really is and where it’s going in the future; how the identity of the country was essentially being written on the bodies of these women. That was always kind of the thing that was underlying the film. When Prachi told me about her camps, it turns out to be the same thing. It’s exactly the same, except their idea of India is totally different. So what’s a war are these two visions of a country. That’s the war and women are basically the front line for that war.

DS: That’s something that you also see a lot in Western culture, as well, and in a way both are still subscribing to this same ideal. It’s something that you can still find today in Canada and the US, which are established melting pots of culture. Was that something that you were able to make a personal connection to while making this film?

NP: Yeah. For me what I started to realize the more I got into the film that the girls were basically a mirror on both sides. They were showing not just India back to itself, but also the world. I think that’s why people identify with the film or why they can relate to it. It shows the world transplanted within the context of this one country.

DS: Getting access to both a beauty pageant and a religious fundamentalist camp both has to be fraught with their own unique challenges. Starting with the beauty pageant, what did you have to do to convince them to let you film within that world?

NP: They were really great. They were pretty straightforward. (pauses, laughs) This is the thing with India: If you spend enough time there you can really get access to anything. Most anything, I shouldn’t say anything. If people like you can get really far because part of the culture is to just be hospitable, and most people are open to you if they like you. And they’re also smart, and they know that the media works two ways. They know both sides and that the media is important to them.

DS: And in the pageant world you show how some of these people are getting media trained…

NP: Exactly. And they know that it’s good press for them.

DS: Was there anyone within the pageant that was ever concerned about their image?

NP: Yeah, eventually, but not within the girls in the pageant so much. Well, maybe Ankita, who just thinks that she isn’t beautiful enough, which is just ridiculous, but definitely on the fundamentalist side of things, there was a bit of anxiety, obviously.

But, you know, both of them have their own belief system, and they stand by that belief system. All I did was film that belief system.

DS: Was there any personal fear that you had delving into the fundamentalist side of this equation?

NP: Sometimes, yes, absolutely. Not with the Durgha’s (the camp in the film), but once we started doing the research portion of the film, we spent some time with some definitely shady characters within the movement that were men. Every now and then I would think that I should be a little bit careful and make sure I let people know where I am. That kind of thing.

DS: Did you ever expressly talk to anyone within the camp about the film you were trying to make?

NP: Yeah. They knew. I didn’t hold back anything. I wanted to make sure that they knew. I always said that it was about women in India and that it was about two visions of them in the country and what women want within that country.

In terms of getting access to the camp, I just knew that I was kind of going to have to spend a lot of time in India and meet a lot of people at various different levels of the movement and that I was going to have to talk to some bigwigs, and that takes time. I just basically just based myself there and I went back and forth between there and Canada for about two years before they finally got so sick of me that they just said “Okay, fine, go ahead.” (laughs)

DS: Do you think you were able to get such access because no one had really tried before?

NP: I don’t know. There’s two things I think. Maybe no one had really been that interested before, and maybe not many people really even knew about the Durga Vahini. A lot of people know about the male associations, but very few people even in India know what the female equivalent is.

I have a male friend in India who has gotten access to the male version of these camps many years ago. When I told him that I wanted to get access to the female side of things he just told me to forget it. It wasn’t going to happen, and they weren’t going to let me in because the movement has such a negative reputation that they’re very mistrustful of the media, but you have to try, you know?