‘The most important film of the year’ – that’s how one critic described Nisha Pahuja’s 2012 documentary, ‘The World Before Her’.
The Emmy-nominated film explored the world of women in India through two startlingly different viewpoints – the travails of a girl taking part in the Miss India contest and the other, a member of the women’s wing of the hardline Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
‘The World Before Her’ film moves between these seemingly incongruous worlds creating a fascinating picture of a soaring India and its divisions.
The film went on to win a slew of awards at film festivals around the world, including Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Those successes led it being championed by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan as well as the man widely considered the godfather of India's burgeoning independent film industry, Anurag Kashyap.
Pahuja was invited to participate in a special debate about women in the media at the recently-concluded London Asian Film Festival where I caught up with her for a chat.
Sana Nooruddin: What inspired ‘The World Before Her?’
Nisha Pahuja: First of all, I just wanted to make a film on the Miss India pageant, but then I thought it will be more interesting to show in my documentary the cultural changes that are taking place in India and how things are changing for women. That was the initial idea, and then it got more developed as I got into researching in-depth on this subject.
SN: What was it about the fashion industry that fascinates you?
NP: It wasn’t really about the fascination of the fashion industry, it was really about “women” and their “thoughts”, and how their imaginations reflect the society.
SN: What insights did you gain from speaking to the models?
NP: You know there were models like Ankita (Shorey), who did win one of the crowns, so Ankita felt that winning the title will give her an identity outside the normal roles that women are supposed to do like a job. For her it was all about fighting for the freedom of her right, and also a few other models filmed in the documentary believed that as well.
SN: What was the experience like filming at a Durga Vahani camp? Was it every intimidating or fearful?
NP: No it never made me feel fearful or intimidated, rather I often felt sad to see young girls being brain washed by lovely women for such horrific things. And it was interesting to meet the girls, interact, and spent a good 10 days with them. We actually lived in the Durga Vahani camp with them. And I also shared my thoughts with them.
SN: One of the models in the documentary gets asked during the general questions round that “How would you react if you found out, your son was gay” and she looks shocked for a moment. Do you think it was unfair to ask that question on a Miss India platform?
NP: I thought it was a really interesting question. Because it’s about how media is portrayed in India, you just see a very rigid side that is kind of stuck in the past and women are very traditional. But there’s actually a side of India that really is as engaging as here (in London).
SN: Do you sometimes feel that this society is a male dominated society or as they call it a “man’s world” in terms of addressing the gender inequality such as men getting high pay then women even today?
NP: You know, I have to say that these things make me feel very angry and one has to fight for them. However I believe it is evolving. A black woman – Michele Obama – is on the world stage. So I look at these things in a much bigger context, I just have a lot of faith in the evolution and change.
SN: What is your take on Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s daughter’?
NP: I loved how Jyoti (Singh) brings a light to that film. You really feel for her and her family, that she’s a full human being. It was a good film however I had some issues with it.
SN: Did the documentary make you re-think your beliefs?
NP: No, it didn’t.
SN: How do you react to reports such as “Blame Bollywood and item songs for rapes”. Do you think cinema really influences people?
NP: Yeah, I do. But if you look up at the videos in the United States they are far more exposing. The media influences people in how we respond to them, and what we think. This is a really important question, because if you speak to a feminist in India they will definitely say it is because of the women who are projected in the media, but I don’t think rape is because of this reason. Rape is such a complicated subject, that I always get a little bit uncomfortable about its questions as I don’t think anything can be “blamed” on it. Rape is about power and violence, and a lot of men who watch Bollywood films or music videos go out and rape women. I think it’s about their upbringing and I really find it frustrating how it is portrayed in the media.
SN: If it was your way, how would you choose to project it?
NP: I don’t know yet, but it really frustrates me when these young women who are deep rooted sees images that are highly photo-shopped in the media, and thinks it’s all real and then they try to adapt to that. All of a sudden everything starts to seem so shallow and darker then.
SN: What’s next for you?
NP: I think that at moment the topic that is really interesting me is “masculinity” , and redefining masculinity. Or actually just redefining gender, let’s just get rid of this whole gender issue. I feel it’s actually just patriotism. We need to look beyond gender and ourselves.
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