Interview: Nisha Pahuja, director of documentary ‘The World Before Her’

By Nandita Dutta • Published on March 27, 2012

The World Before Her, a documentary by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja opens the World Documentary Competition at the

the world before her11th Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film portrays the situation of contemporary women in India, drawing parallels between those nurtured in modern vis-à-vis traditional cultures. It follows the journey of girls participating in the Miss India pageant in contrast with girls in a camp of Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of Vishva Hindu Parishad. Nisha Pahuja talks about her experiences and discoveries while making this film:

What was the idea you started out with?

Initially I wanted to make a film that looked at the Miss India Pageant as a way to explore a country in transition and how women were both being used to create a new idea of India and were themselves part of the creation of a new Indian nationalism and identity.  I had always wanted to include the Hindu right wing, especially as they had banned and protested so many beauty contests over the years.  But when I met Prachi and she told me about the Durga Vahini camps, I knew that getting access to those camps would mean I would have a richer film, with more layers and complexity.

When did you begin shooting the film in India? How long did it take?

I began shooting the film in 2009 and finished shooting in 2011.  I shot for over three years and then my editor Dave Kazala and I were in the edit room for about 8 months.  In total, the film took just about 4 years to make.

How did you manage to get access to shooting the girls during preparations for Miss India pageant?

Getting access to the girls was initially quite straightforward.  Anupama Chopra, the wonderful film critic put me in touch with someone who connected me to Sameer Soni, the head of the pageant.  After a few months of negotiating with them, I was given complete access and cooperation.  But actually filming the girls during the training was a nightmare given how unpredictable their schedules were. I had always set out to make a process based narrative driven documentary where I followed one or two girls and explored the pageant through their eyes and watched them undergo a real transformation. In the end, I had to abandon that plan and we simply shot what we were able to.

Nisha Pahuja

Nisha Pahuja

How did you find the experience personally? 

This has been the toughest film I have made for a number of reasons. However, it is for those same reasons that it has also been the most valuable.  The most interesting thing for me was filming and becoming friends with many of the girls at the Durga Vahini camp.  The fundamentalists by far were the greatest revelation.  Prachi is an extraordinary young woman and I often wonder what life would have been like for her had she grown up in a more liberal home or with a less complex father.  But in the end, I was very fond of her entire family, including her father who is as much a product of patriarchy as is his daughter.  No matter who seems to be in power, constructs, by their very nature define us, and as such, they limit our freedom.  I felt Hemant ji was as much a prisoner of place and time and patriarchy as Prachi was and so I did not judge him.

Any practical challenges you faced while shooting the film in India?              

I love shooting in India but one must accept that shooting here will force one to reckon with many things– most notably oneself.  India is a constant negotiation; in that sense it can be relentless and exhausting.  This film was particularly challenging because our access to the two worlds–the Durga camp and the Miss India camp were often stringently defined so I never quite knew if I had enough story.  It also didn’t help that the Durga camp was completely run in Marathi which is a language I don’t understand at all.  I constantly had to ask Mrinal and Anita (my crew), what on earth people were saying which drove them nuts.

The most fascinating part of the film for me was working with Rajani Ratnaparkhi, a filmmaker who worked as a translator for us.  Over a few weeks, she and I sat through hours and hours of footage and she told me what people were saying.  It was not an easy process for either of us because the content was so hateful, so dark.  However, it was when the penny really dropped and I knew I had a film where I could look at these two seemingly disparate worlds and these two seemingly disparate ideas of India and Indian women being manufactured.

How did you manage to find funding for the film?

Documentaries, especially feature length ones are becoming harder and harder to finance.  This one took a very long time.  Normally the process is– we find a key Canadian broadcaster and then work our way around the globe.  But the Canadian doc industry has been hit hard and most broadcasters were not able to get involved. The ones who were, came on as second window and their license fees were small.  Eventually I approached ZDF in Germany.  They had commissioned my last film which was a three part series on the global diamond trade.  They agreed to come in on this which was really what triggered it all for us.

With ZDF we were invited to pitch the film at the Forum at IDFA.  We got a very good response which triggered Channel 4 money, and money from two funds–Gucci/Tribeca and Cinereach–both funds in the US.  I then managed to get two handsome interest free loans from personal friends of mine and then we raised more money from a company called Impact Partners in the US.  Eventually Cornelia Principe and Ed Barreveld–producer and exec producer respectively raised the rest of the money through Telefilm, Hot Docs Canwest fund, Rogers and a few other funds in Canada.  But all of this took three years.

Any revelations, learning during the process of making this documentary that you would like to share with our readers?

It’s very important for the film and for yourself to not take on too much, to understand how it is you work and what you need in order to work.  Energy and passion are in fact finite.  And always, always listen to your instincts, they will never steer you wrong.

Tell us about your background.

I was born in New Delhi and moved to Canada as a child. I studied English Literature at University with the intention of one day becoming a writer.  Documentary filmmaking really happened to me quite by chance but once it did, I was hooked.  I started off as a researcher and then eventually began directing my own films about twelve years ago. I’ve realized over the years that I usually start off with a story that is fairly straightforward and then suddenly they become extremely ambitious and large.  I’m still trying to understand why that happens –what it is that draws me to such large canvases. I think perhaps it’s because nothing really is simple and all films take the filmmaker on a journey and demand to be explored in some kind of totality.

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