The World Before Her Finally Plays in US
(from brinkzine.com 5/5/13)
The 2013 Tribeca Film Festival ended on April 28 and only now is the Best Documentary winner of the 2012 TFF getting its American release. From May 6 to May 12, Nisha Pahuja's fascinating The World Before Her can be seen in fifteen cities across the country, including New York, where it will play at the Cinema Village beginning Tuesday May 7 (check schedule). It is the third film in Cinedigm’s (NASDAQ: CIDM) new DOCURAMA multi-platform film brand and inaugural series of national theatrical screening events. The film's newest publicity release correctly states: "With the safety of women inEver since I saw Nisha Pahuja's endlessly enlightening The World Before Her a few days before it was selected Best Documentary at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, I think about it. I wonder what has happened to her two young, fascinating subjects since the acclaimed Canadian director (in photo with cinematographer Mrinal Desai, her husband) turned off her cameras. I still care about Ruhi Singh (in pink bikini), the epitome of the "modern" Indian woman who competes in the 2010 Miss India contest, and Prachi Trivedi (with finger raised), the angry, brilliant quasifeminist, whose potential for being a proponent for women's rights is being squashed, paradoxically, by the backward, women-oppressing Hindu fundamentalism to which she devotes her life. From a place of ignorance, I try to fathom changing
making headlines around the
world, Pahuja’s film brings attention to the historical and modern forces that
are impacting on the very survival of girls and the rights of women who today
are forging their own identities."
I did the following interview with Pahuja for brinkzine.com at last
year's Tribeca festival just before she took home its best-doc prize, and
before the film was selected the Best Canadian Feature at the 2012 Hot Docs
Film Festival and the Best Foreign Film at Michael Moore’s 2012 Traverse City
Film Festival. Following my intro and Q&A,
check out two new questions I posed to her and responses. India
In the film's production notes, Pahuja (who won Gemini Awards for Bollywood Bound and the series Diamond Road) states: "I have been going to India now for nearly 15 years and the more time I spend there, the more I realize what India does best is teach. It teaches one to see that assumptions are never safe and nothing is simple. Sabira Merchant, one of the pageant voices in the film, says, 'There are two
Danny Peary: I read that you live in
Nisha Pahuja: Yes, I’m part of the community. I live in
DP: Have you liked being at the Tribeca Film Festival?
NP: It’s fantastic. I love being here, particularly since the Tribeca Film Institute helped the film financially. Gucci was partnered with it to support three films with women-centered issues, and ours was one. They actually approached us. In November 2009, we were invited to pitch the film at IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Ryan Harrington, who is with the Institute, saw the pitch and invited us to submit the film.
DP: The pitch must be much different from the final product.
NP: Yes, actually. The pitch was that we were going to follow girls through the Miss India pageant. But the Durga Vahini fundamentalist camp wasn’t part of it.
DP: Is Durga Vahini known all over
NP: Durga is an Indian warrior goddess and Durga Vahini means essentially an Army of Durga. Its camps take place all over
DP: So originally you had no thought of having a parallel story about a girl in the Hindu fundamentalist camp?
NP: No, but the pitch did include the fundamentalists. We always had that angle to be part of the film.
DP: Was the angle that Hindu fundamentalists are against the pageant?
NP: Yes. The fundamentalists were preparing to protest the pageant and we were going to follow that. They don't protest annually, just every few years, and it turned out that they didn’t protest in 2010. I knew I had access to the beauty pageant in which Ruhi would be a contestant, but since I hadn’t gained access yet to the camp, it wasn’t part of my pitch. However, I had met Prachi.
DP: How did you meet her?
NP: Basically through the editor of a right-wing newspaper, whom I met through one of the big-wigs in the fundamentalist movement. I told him I wanted to talk to people on the ground, real foot soldiers who engaged in acts of violence and were willing to die for the cause. He introduced me to a number of young people. Prachi stood out.
DP: Where do Prachi and Ruhi live?
NP: Prachi lives in
DP: Among the minor characters in the beauty pageant scenes is Pooja Chopra, whose brave mother took her and left her husband, who wanted to kill their female baby. Your film basically sets up a parallel between Prachi and Ruhi, so was Pooja also part of your original concept and where does her story come in thematically?
NP: I met Pooja in 2009 during a research trip. It was then that she told me about nearly being killed as a newborn. After she won the 2009 Miss
DP: For me the editing process, going back and forth between the two stories, would have been the most difficult part of making this film.
NP: It was. I work with a brilliant editor named Dave Kazala. It took months for us to look through and process all the footage. The film took shape in the editing room. We knew we wanted to parallel the two worlds but we wanted sidebar characters, that we eventually lost. We structured the film so that there would be an intersection of the worlds. We knew a direct collision wasn't going to happen because there wasn't going to be a protest by fundamentalists of the pageant. So we couldn't build toward that physical collision. Instead we built toward an ideological collision of the two belief systems. That's how we structured the film. We decided that each time we went to one of the worlds, we would learn something else; and that the film would progressively grow darker and darker.
DP: You had a woman from each of those worlds in your film, which creates an pretty easy parallel, but did you in reality think they had parallel lives and dealt with some of the same issues?
NP: Without a doubt. They live in the same country, they share the space. The reality of
DP: Prachi is Hindu, but what is Ruhi?
NP: Ruhi is Hindu, too. In fact about 80% of the people in
DP: At the beginning of the film, the pageant is presented almost like a feminist, political alternative, an opportunity to achieve economic equality with men, but as we watch it unfold, we see that something is off.
NP: Sure. It was deliberate that we portrayed the pageant as being so beneficial to women at the beginning, but then we kind of destructed it. In both camps actually, we start off lightly and introduce the world. Each world appears to be one thing and then becomes darker.
DP: There seems to be a parallel drawn immediately when you introduce a beauty camp and a fundamentalist camp. I’d say there is an indoctrination process in both, but at least the contestants can leave after the pageant is over and not be under anyone’s influence.
NP: Yeah, but even the pageant girls are indoctrinated in some sense. They’re taught diction, they’re taught how to speak in a certain way, they’re taught how to walk in a certain way. Once the three winners are selected, they will actually do training with knives and forks. They’ll learn etiquette and how to eat properly. They’ll be polished for when they go on to international pageants. They do change through an indoctrination process. They change physically and in their thinking. There is also a change in the way they look at themselves and in their world view—they become more Westernized. A lot of these girls come from small towns and their families may be more liberal than Prachi’s family, but they still come from relatively conservative environments.
DP: The contestants in the pageant initially seem to be independent thinkers, but then we see them follow all orders from pageant officials and all most totally conform. The one thing people reacted to at my screening was when during the middle of the pageant some of the contestants get Botox treatments because that's what the pageant doctor suggested. Were you surprised to hear people gasp?
NP: Yes! I wasn’t sure if people were reacting because it was young girls undergoing this treatment or that there was a bit of coercion. They could have turned it down.
DP: It seems like there is a step by step process for the contestants and that one step is botox. It’s like in The Wizard of Oz when she gets the
NP: Exactly. There was actually a girl who refused the treatment, but most of them go through with it. They do it because the doctor comes on the second or third day of training and does a facial assessment and body assessment of each girl. He tells them what’s perfect and imperfect and what they need and where they’re going to inject the Botox. It’s incredible.
DP: For me there were a few scenes where they all look alike, as in The Stepford Wives.
NP: I’m Indian and they don’t look alike to me.
DP: It's not that they're Indian. I’ll watch a beauty pageant of contestants from the
NP: It’s funny when Ruhi’s parents are going, “Which one is she?” They can’t tell them apart.
DP: Ankita was one of the three winners. I won't say how Ruhi did, but I thought she was the prettiest contestant.
NP: I’ll tell her you said that. She’ll be so happy. She’s lovely, isn’t she? She has a very unconventional beauty.
DP: Are the losers totally disappointed or is it a positive experience?
NP: It’s fantastic. Even if you don’t win, you are given an incredible visibility. That pageant is watched nearly a billion people around the world. There are a lot of people in the beauty and fashion industry and the film industry who watch the pageant to look at the women. Once you’ve had that kind of training from people who are the top of their fields, photographers and fashion designers all want to work with you. Bollywood is the peak, the goal of all the contestants.
DP: Ruhi has the beauty to do it.
NP: It’s interesting you’d think that because in India she wouldn’t be considered beautiful at all. She has a very unconventional thing going on and has an amazing personality so she’s reality show material. She’d be seen as someone who would be great on TV. We shot the selection process when they had 120 girls and narrowed that down to 20. Some of the girls who were turned down knocked your socks off. I couldn’t believe it. But they were too dark or weren’t tall enough. Ruhi was told that her nose was too big. So she doesn’t have a feminine enough nose to make it in Bollywood.
Ruhi SinghDP: You say that all the losers have a lot of options but isn’t their confidence about their looks kind of destroyed? Especially since the doctor pointed out their flaws.
NP: Oh, yeah, it does affect them. It’s devastating when they lose. Even when they’re competing it’s difficult for them because although there is a real camaraderie among the girls, they are always competing against them and comparing themselves to them. There is one girl named Shweta who was very smart and was constantly questioning what was going on. She refused the Botox, thinking, “It’s ridiculous, I’m twenty, I’m here because people think I’m beautiful, I don’t need this.” That didn’t affect her chances of winning. She was beautiful and smart. The judges have their own criteria. When you go into that environment you can pretty much tell who is going to win. I’ve predicted the winner every year from the first year to the year I shot this film.
DP: I won't give away who wins the pageant but I thought she won because she told the judges in the question and answer part of the competition that young girls can set an example for mothers who didn’t have opportunities. Was that the perfect answer?
NP: It was a great answer because it was delivered with real spontaneity. It seemed to come from her heart. She was very articulate.
DP: You show Prachi watching the pageant with her mother when the winner says that.NP: I would think that both she and her mother would think about what was said. Prachi is a very interesting woman. In some ways she is a real feminist. Her mum clearly is a little afraid of her husband, Prachi’s father, so I wonder if that statement moved her.
DP: Everybody responds to her so it's a huge shame she has the wrong outlet for her thinking. She's being directed to the wrong place.
NP: Absolutely. I told her, “You’re fighting for something that’s oppressing you.”
DP: Part of her seems to know that. She even says it in the movie.
NP: Yes, it was heavy conversation. I thought it was a deeply sad moment for her. It was tough.
DP: She’s fighting something, trying to break out of something, but she can’t do it because her father is ready to marry her off. If she went off to college, would that change her life?
NP: She is in college, though we didn’t get into it. She's twenty-six and lives at home but she’s in a local government-run law school near her house. She is around these other young people and it definitely has affected her level of confidence.
DP: I hope she's also affected by her classmates divergent views.
NP: I’d like to think that but every time I speak to her and ask her about her beliefs, it’s clear that she hasn’t changed and she’s still working for the movement. So college doesn’t seem to have impacted her belief system. I’m surprised. She’s an incredible woman and I feel that if she’d been born in a different time and place or had a less complicated relationship with her dad she could channel her energy—which is so huge—into something positive and amazing.
DP: How did you feel about her father, who, too, is stuck in a culture?
NP: To be honest, I grew to really like him. I liked him because he has integrity and is a man of his word. I know that what he believes in is totally misguided and destructive and that he does have an ego, but he really is motivated by something bigger than him. He has a particular vision and a love for
DP: I was surprised that he admitted he beats Prachi.
NP: I already knew that from Prachi so I wasn't surprised, but that he admitted to me on camera that he beat her was extraordinary. I felt it spoke to the fact that he really trusted me. I spent so much time with him and her that things in their relationship didn't really surprise me, except for his heating up the iron bar to burn her foot. That was shocking, as was what she said, that he had a right to do it because he had let her live when she was born. It's so sad. Those moments were very difficult for me. With Prachi, at least I could be honest and react, which I did. As a filmmaker you have to let people say their piece, and then you respond.
DP: Prachi's father is conservative in that he states she won't be a woman until she is married and has a baby, but he doesn't distinguish between a male baby and a female baby and that is more progressive than many fathers in
NP: I asked him if he wanted a son. Of course, he wanted a son, which is why he raised Prachi as a boy, but he told me that he and his wife decided that they were going to have only one child and that they were going to accept whatever gender that child was. They wouldn't keep trying until they had a son.
DP: Talk about your choice of title. I'm sure it has more than one meaning, perhaps that there is a modern
NP: The title is many things. Her in the title refers to the women of course, but also to
DP: In regard to your first meaning of Before, are you talking about opportunities the women have--which is what I think your film is about?
NP: Sure. The world as it's laid out for you is opportunities in the future. It's also that these opportunities are yours for the taking. The title came to me when I was writing the proposal and thought of an image. This whole beauty pageant industry came into prominence in 1994 when two Indian women won the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants. This launched pageantdom in
DP: Do you think of your film as optimistic or cautionary or just a glimpse at what's going on with women in
NP: I think it's a glimpse of what's going on. Ninety minutes can never be the whole picture, right? There are always so many other complexities and viewpoints. But I decided to focus very deliberately on these two choices, between modernity--so-called "modernity" actually--and tradition. Because they are fundamental choices. It really looks at how women are used to put forth two different ideas of
DP: What do you mean by "used?"
NP: Women have always been used to promote national identify.
DP: In the film's production notes, you questioned whether the girls in the pageant, who think they have all kinds of freedoms, may be "simply trading one set of shackles for another." You ask, "When so much goes into making us who and what we are, do we not have to question the very notion of freedom itself?" Are you saying that to have freedom without having a understanding of the politics in the world is useless and dangerous?
NP: That makes sense. I looked at those women in my film and felt they were trapped. Both sets of women. I looked at Prachi's father and felt the same thing, because patriarchy is also a construct and all constructs define us and give us parameters. Rules are outlined for men and women. Men are victimized by being defined, although not to the same degree as women and they are the ones in power. Not all of them want to be in that position. That is another reason I didn't dislike Prachi's father. I felt he was a product of something--culture, history, the forces of the present day--that is so much bigger than him. I started to think how all of us are defined, no matter where we are, by things bigger than ourselves, that we can't control, and sometimes can't see and recognize. So how do define freedom? Are the women in the pageant more free or is it a different kind of imprisonment?
DP: I'm surprised that Prachi was allowed to go to college by her father. I wondered if she even had a cell phone.
NP: Oh, yeah. She's connected to the world; she's on Facebook, the whole bit.
DP: What would it be like if she and Ruhi were roommates?
NP (laughing): I think Ruhi would give her a makeover. That's how they'd start! Prachi would teach Ruhi how to defend herself. Prachi is incredible. When I spent time with her while doing research, I was amazed by the way she intimidated men. They'd run away, literally There was once a group of men on the street and they all ran away. She's an imposing figure. She's about 5'7" and is stocky and powerful, with a booming voice. She scares people. She's gotten into so many fights, including knife fights at Hindu festivals. She carries a knife with her.
DP: Would Prachi try to indoctrinate a roommate?
NP: Oh, yeah. She tried to indoctrinate me! Constantly. One of her conditions for my shooing in the camp was that I had to sit through the lectures. But they were in Marathi and I don't speak it. So I wasn't brainwashed.
DP: Did you two hug?
NP: Oh, yeah, of course! Constantly! I love her. I think what she saw me as kind of an older sister, or maternal figure. She didn't ask me about the world but I was a confidant. There were lots of things she told me both on and off camera that I didn't use because I didn't want to expose her.
DP: Her world is so different than yours so I wonder if you said something untrue to her if she'd see through you or be naive enough to accept it. Because there is such falseness going on in her world.
NP: You're right. But she's very smart and gets it. She has real integrity. What I found with the fundamentalists is that, as far out there as they are, the ones that I dealt with had an ethos, and that ethos gave them integrity.
DP: In the film's production notes, you wrote about how filming the fundamentalists turned out to be easier than filming the pageant world because every time you wanted to film a contestant she'd be whisked away for some reason. You wrote: "So I lost hair and ate."
NP: It was constant, and I was going, "I'm not going to have a film." The film I sold was that I was going to follow girls through the process and that meant I'd have access to them. I wasn't getting access so we'd just shoot whenever we could. It was really flying by the seat of our pants. We were lucky in that the girls were just so smart. And Ruhi was a trouper. She had no issues about being films. She always wanted to do it. She loved being on camera and was so open. She wore her heart on her sleeve.
DP: It was easy to relate to her parents. They are lower middle-class and figured she knew more about what she was doing, so didn't put restrictions on her.
NP: They totally let her go. Her parents are actually well off but it doesn't come across because they live in such a ramshackle home. That's a whole other story. But they aren't poor. Ruhi's mum comes from a military background. Her father and granddad were in the military. When you're in the military in a place like
DP: What if you put the two fathers together?
NP (laughing): I actually think they'd get along really well. They'd have tea and complain about their daughters and how much money they cost them.
DP: Would Prachi's father ask him if he knew any eligible young guys?
NP: Probably not! I think Ruhi's dad is too liberal for him to ask that of him.
Prachi teaching at Durga Vahini camp
NP: In some circles she would be. They're getting nervous but I don't think they'll freak until she hits twenty-eight or thirty.
DP: She says doesn't want to have kids. Do you think that's true?
NP: Yes. She doesn't want to get married or have children. She wants the freedom of a man.
DP: Has Prachi seen the film yet?
NP: I will be showing the film to her and others when I next return to
DP: Showing the film to Prachi should be an experience. She'll either love being a movie star or become a film critic and question what you chose to leave out of her! Good luck!
NP: I imagine Prachi is going to smoke a big fat cigar and tell me exactly what I did wrong.
DP: I'm sure you hope the best for both girls, but what do you see ahead of them?
NP: I'm a lot more optimistic about Ruhi. I think her road will be much more straightforward. She has very supportive parents who will back her and love her. I think we'll see her on television. Prachi will have a tough time, a very challenging life. But I think she'll get through it. I really do.
DP: Nisha, what has happened to your film since in played at Tribeca last year?
NP: The film went on to play at over 100 film festivals so far. It won about 12 awards and was on a few top ten lists for 2012. All in all a good run. I am happy that it is now being distributed in the
DP: Of course, all of us who have seen the film want to know what happened to the stars of your movie.
NP: I have not talked to Ruhi in some time but from her Facebook posts she seems to be doing fairly well in the modeling world and certainly looks fabulous! Prachi is great! She got a new hairdo, is tweezing her eyebrows, and has finished her law degree and is working! She is still not married. Pooja Chopra, the young contestant who was to be killed as a new born female baby, has just released her first big Bollywood film and it looks like it's a hit as they are planning a sequel!! It's called..you ready? COMMANDO!! How cool is that? Here's the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLIs-4oM3m4