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The World Before Her: Women on the Brink

Two starkly different boot camps, and women with similar ambitions from every corner of the country.

Our Women at Work issue concludes with an interview with Nisha Pahuja- writer and director of the impactful new documentary- The World Before Her

The World Before Her

Nisha Pahuja’s “The World Before Her” follows 20 young girls as they take part in an intensive beauty boot camp for the Miss India pageant. It also travels to a different part of the country to visit the month long training camp run by the Durga Vahini- the women’s wing of the militant Hindu fundamentalist movement. Moving between the transformative action at both camps and the characters’ private lives, The World Before Her creates a lively, provocative portrait of the world’s largest democracy at a critical transitional moment. These young women may represent opposing extremes but in their hearts they share a common dream: to help shape the future of India as she meets the world before her.

Nisha –the documentary’s writer and director- has been working on the film for nearly 6 years now. She spent four years researching and filming the story, and then the last two years traveling and promoting the film to countless film festivals and laying the groundwork for her India wide campaign. Along the way she picked up 19 awards and distinctions, but she is probably most excited about what lies ahead for it. The World Before Her releases in India this April, and Nisha and team will travel across the country along with to raise awareness about some of the issues that the movie highlights,  such as the scourge of female infanticide, and the different ways in which women seek empowerment

She took some time off from her busy schedule to talk to us about the film and about herself, and all we can say is that- when this film releases in your town, make sure you’re there to see it!

Nisha, how does someone with no prior experience first go ahead and make a film?

I have no formal education in filmmaking- in fact I studied English Literature thinking that I wanted to be a storyteller of a different kind- a writer. This has been both a blessing and a curse in a way. On the one hand I benefit from not having any rigid ideas about the process, on the other hand I have needed to pick up a lot of the technical skills on my own.

The first thing you need to do to make a film, after deciding upon your theme, is to find a good Producer. Actually, the entire team is very important and it is essential that you surround yourself with the right set of people who take care of the various other facets of filmmaking apart from the direction. The technology available today makes a lot of previously difficult aspects of the process more accessible, and even for funding there are multiple platforms available such as Kickstarter. So the key challenge remains to assemble a good team.

When did the idea of The World Before Her first strike you?

I happened to be in Mumbai in 1999, researching for  another film. This was around the time when Yukta Mookhey was crowned Miss World, and I attended one of her homecoming parties. The celebratory atmosphere about her victory, the euphoria, stayed with me.

In the West- we don’t think of beauty contests as being particularly empowering, but the excitement and joy surrounding her was very infectious, and I thought that it said something about this country. Many years later, as I continued to read more about beauty contests and the entire industry surrounding it, I also became aware of the fundamentalist groups that were in opposition of these contests. My research into these two opposing phenomenon became the basis of my film.

The truth is that you can make a film about anything- it is all about what prism you use to understand and reflect upon the society you are living in. And the story of the women in the beauty contest and the Durga Vahini became my lens of looking at women in India.

When you’ve shown this documentary to an audience, what has the reaction been like so far?

It has been so illuminating! We walk into this movie with our own prejudices- assuming that women belonging to a fundamentalist organization would behave in a particular way, or that those taking part in a beauty contest would be of a ‘type’. But as the audience watches the movie you can see them realize how much more complex and three-dimensional these women are. You can sense their own loyalties shift over the course of the movie, and in that sense watching this movie has often been a transformative experience for them.

When I started making the movie myself, I worried that perhaps the pageant contestants won’t have much to say, but they’ve all surprised me with their intelligence and just how smart and driven they were. They continuously challenged my presumptions about them.

Are you in touch with the girls you met during the course of filming this movie?

I am! In fact, some of them are involved with the outreach program that we are working on around the release of the movie. Prachi- the Durga Vahini leader, and Ruhi- the Miss India contestant that I worked with the longest during the movie, both attended screenings and really enjoyed the final film. They enjoyed watching their story unfold with honesty and without any sensationalism.

What was interesting was how much the two empathized and cheered on for the other. Prachi wanted Ruhi to win the pageant and Ruhi was so impressed by Prachi’s story!

In what ways has the making of this movie been a transformative experience for you?

It has been absolutely phenomenal.  Your dream as a storyteller is for your story to reach as wide an audience as possible. As a documentary filmmaker you know that very few films get that chance, and for this movie to get that opportunity has been nothing short of overwhelming. The success of this documentary internationally and now its release in India gives you the confidence in your ability to tell a story and make a positive change in this world. Documentary makers in part choose this line because they want to make some sort of a social impact and change, and with this movie I feel that I’ve had the chance to do just  that.

Any other recent movies you’ve seen that you enjoyed?

I absolutely loved Ship of Theseus. And I can’t wait to see Katiyaabaz and Gulabi Gang(the documentary) (Editor’s Note: Nisha and I also share a love for last years stunning doc The Act of Killing)

What’s next on the anvil for you Nisha? And do you see yourself ever make narrative features instead of documentaries?

My next project is on the rise of Fundamentalism across the globe. And yes, I definitely see myself doing a narrative film at some stage. As a documentarian I am almost like a journalist – telling real stories of real people- and I really enjoy this aspect of my vocation. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t one day have a different kind of story to tell.

Lastly Nisha, if there was one person you could go back in time and have dinner with, whom would it be and why?

It would have to be Gandhiji. The world needs more people like him, and he was just such an extraordinary person, I would love to have a chance to engage with him and learn from him.

The World Before Her screens as part of PVR Director’s Rare in April across 6 cities – Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and Ahmedabad. To find out when there will be a screening near your home town, check out their website 

Edited on 26/3/2014: Support The World Before Her’s India Campaign by participating in their Kickstarter campaign. Your donations can help the movie reach more people.

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