Q&A: Nisha Pahuja, Director of The World Before Her
India at the Crossroads
10.10.2012 -The World Before
Her provides provocative insight into Indian women's
lives, juxtaposing the Miss India pageant with the women's arm of
the Hindu fundamentalist movement. Before the film premieres at
ADFF, Nisha Pahuja answers our questions.
For your film you have chosen two very different worlds
to portray from India. How did you decide to focus on these two
The extreme worlds in the film were fascinating to me for two
reasons - first because they seem to be polar opposites when in
fact, as we discover, they aren't really in the end. And secondly
because I feel these two extremes reveal something not just of
India, which is in a period of transition, but the world at large.
In some sense the film holds up a mirror reflecting our collective
current reality: one that is made up of two key forces, capitalism
and religious fundamentalism - both essentialist ideologies.
I also wanted to explore how women in India were being used and
were also helping to forge a new Indian identity.The idea that
women's sexuality and nationalism are linked is an age old one and
I wanted to shed light on how that was being played out in India,
one of our emerging superpowers.
In terms of characters that I follow, Ruhi in the pageant world
was just so much fun and she was bright and wore her heart on her
sleeve.She really allowed us to see her vulnerability, which is
something that most girls were afraid to expose. And also, I loved
Ruhi's parents. It was so important to the film to have a man who
was so supportive and loving toward his daughter. Not all men in
India believe in that patriarchal structure!
And Prachi of course for me is extraordinary.She really is the
key embodiment of the conflict between tradition and Westernisation
that so many people, men and women are facing in that
country.Because of that, she is the most complex character in the
In your film, it's fascinating to see how the characters,
as different as they seem, are in a way trapped within the
boundaries of the society.
I feel that the choices facing the girls in the film reflect the
choices facing India - what is the country going to be?What is its
future? How much of its culture will it give up what Western values
will it absorb?Like Prachi, India is at a crossroads.One thing that
I find so interesting which I was hoping to explore in the film but
did not have time to, is the impact of satellite TV in
India.Imagine what it must be like to go from one state run
broadcaster to a multi channel universe almost overnight! That is
what happened when Rupert Murdoch brought star TV to India. The
impact of liberalisation is profound and it is going to play itself
out for years.
The access you had into the beauty pageant preparations,
as well as the nationalist camps and Prachi's life is remarkable.
However, you also mention that it wasn't always easy to get the
kind of access you wanted for your film to fully portray the worlds
of the characters. What were your challenges in terms of building
trust, and getting the insight you needed from your
There were never any issues about trust with the girls
themselves - it was the guardians of the worlds that were
problematic. Both worlds have an agenda and an image they want to
portray and propagate. As soon as you invite an outsider who is
questioning and is asking you to question that agenda, things
The other issue, especially with the pageant world is just how
disorganised everything was-: Things were constantly in a state of
flux so we never knew what we were going to get or whether we'd be
able to film with the girls we needed to film with. And of course,
it was all run on IST (Indian Standard Time)…
Were there any instances where you had to stop filming
because your characters didn't feel comfortable about the way they
are portrayed in the film?
In both worlds the organisers demanded we stop filming at
various points but the girls themselves never asked us to - not as
far as I can remember, at least.Sometimes the girls in the pageant
asked me not to use certain clips and for the most part I honoured
that - I think there is only one sequence in the film where I show
someone who did not want me to show them. I blur them but I did not
delete the scene entirely.
Did you observe any changes in the perspective of the
characters throughout the making of the film or
What is fascinating is that they change you as much as you
change them. I never thought I could care so much about a
fundamentalist and her family as I do! Certainly also the girls
think about their lives and their choices; we got very close to
them and sometimes when someone asks you a question it forces you
to reflect on who you are and why.
You were born in India and raised in Canada. You've gone
back to India for this film to focus on the challenges that women
face in the Indian societytoday. What does making this film
represent for you?
This film really started out as a film looking at a country in
transition; it wasn't supposed to be a film about women necessarily
or the issues they face. It became that because so many of the
girls participating in the pageant felt that becoming a Miss India
was going to give them freedom and opportunity and an empowerment
that living in India does not give them as women.
Once I embraced that concept the film started to become very
personal.Like a lot of the women in the film I understand the
issues that they have to struggle with and that my mother continues
to struggle with. It was tough to make but also very liberating in
some sense because it forced me to see people in a way that I had
not earlier.At one point I realised that the issue is not one of
gender, but one of culture, one of time and evolution and patience.
Everything changes; it just takes will and time to make change
happen.And we can't do it without including men in the process -
and not with anger, but with compassion.
Where do you position yourself as a Indo-Canadian female
documentary filmmaker, in terms of subject matters you choose and
the issues you want to focus on?
Over the last few years I have stopped thinking of myself as an
Indo-Canadian doc filmmaker. I just see myself as a filmmaker: my
race and gender are becoming more and more irrelevant. The stories
that I feel drawn to, and the places I feel drawn to are places in
flux, in conflict.Where the battles they are fighting are large
battles, in some sense, defining battles.All of us are shaped by so
many things, but people who are living through significant moments
in their country's history - it is their stories that, more and
more, I feel compelled to share.
An unforgettable moment from the shooting you'd like to
The best moment for me by far is one that we had to lose - both
my editor Dave and I loved this moment.I asked Prachi as she was
getting ready one morning in front of the mirror if she thought she
was pretty. She laughed loudly, then grew quiet and looked at her
reflection and very shyly said "I'm handsome. I think I'm
handsome."It wasa beautiful statement and delivered with real
Have the girls and their families seen the film yet, and
what kind of reactions did you receive from them?Have you spoken
with them recently?
Yes, Prachi and her family have seen the film as has Ruhi.Their
reactions were great which is a huge relief for me! Ruhi thought
Prachi was fascinating.Watching the film for her however was hard
for a number of reasons.
Prachi and her family really liked it as well. They felt it was
well balanced.They were terrified that it would be a sensationalist
account of the movement, so were pleasantly surprised that it
wasn't and that they aren't misrepresented.Prachi's father became
quite emotional at various moments, which of course surprised
me.The best part was that they all wanted Ruhi to win! It gave me
hope that maybe it is possible to bridge the divide.
The ADFF screenings of The World Before Her are:
10/14/2012 at 9:00 PM, Vox 4
10/15/2012at 4:30 PM, Vox 4 (Ladies Only)
10/16/2012 at 2:00 PM, Vox 6