Anurag Kashyap’s first documentary film has evoked strong reactions from the industry wallahs. While actor Nandita Das calls it powerful, director Shimit Amin was scared and moved by Anurag’s The World Before Her. Writer/Director Nisha Pahuja whose film raises some significant questions about women’s rights in India talks to Pandolin about her journey through the film, is set to release today, June 6th 2014.

Director Nisha behind the camera

Director Nisha behind the camera

What inspired you to make a documentary on women’s rights in India?

When I first started working on the film, it was really just going to be about the Miss India contest. But something happened when I first came to India in 1999. I was researching for my first documentary ‘Bollywood Bound’ then and was invited to attend a function celebrating Yukta Mookhey’s win as the new Miss World. I attended the event with my writer friend Vikram Chandra. It was a massive celebration. It was interesting for me because I grew up in the West where beauty contests are old school and passe. Not because they are all feminists but quite the opposite. They are about objectification. So I felt it was an interesting moment as it says something much deeper about a country that’s undergoing huge changes. So that’s where the journey kind of started. Many years later I decided to revisit it. I was working with a Canadian producer and we thought it would make an interesting film. So I came to India to do my research and learnt about how the Hindutva groups were anti-pageant. There was this moment when Pooja (Chopra, Miss India) starts talking about being almost killed for being a girl and that shifted my perspective. People tell you all sorts of dramatic things when you’re making a documentary but growing up as an Indian and seeing what my mother went through with my father, I knew how a patriarchal society functioned. I knew at that moment that the film had to be about women’s rights.

What was  your journey while researching for the film? 

Documentaries require a lot of time in the pre-production stages. I was raising money, researching and also doing preliminary filming which took over a year. It took me another two years to get access to the Durga Vahini camp. I didn’t broach the topic with people within the movement for quite some time. I wanted to first build relationships with people in the movement and that took a very long time.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Durga Vahini camps are not publicised and are known to be a discreet group. How did you get access to them and convince them to talk?

As a documentary filmmaker it’s part of our job to get access to worlds that other people normally don’t have access to or wouldn’t know about. We have to develop skills to forge relationships with people especially when the topic is sensitive. Fundamentally I disagree with everything the young women are taught at the camps and the only thing I don’t disagree with is the sense of this hyper-capitalist system we have adopted around the world, and how it’s become a façade for modernity. I think the VHP is trying to deconstruct that and I really respect them for that but other than that, I had issues with what they were teaching. The point is that it is their belief system and you have to respect it as these people are letting you in. I can dislike and disagree with it, but as a filmmaker I can’t tell the audience what to think of it. That was my approach and, eventually, I think they trusted me enough to know that I wasn’t going to make a sensational film. Also, we are living in a very media-savvy world. We know the power of media, be it good press or bad press. The point is just to get in front of the press, sometimes. They strongly believe in what they are doing. So to a degree, I feel, they felt this is an opportunity for them to let the world know. I haven’t had a conversation about it, but I think somewhere that would have been partly responsible for their motivation to co-operate. I definitely know that was what motivated Prachi- a young Durga Vahini leader at the camp. She wanted to bring awareness to the movement and her work.

There must have been a lot of challenges given the sensitivity of the subject. What were the most difficult ones while making ‘The World Before Her’? 

We faced challenges all the time and not just in the Durga Vahini camp, but also with the Miss India contest. If you think about it, Miss India is a brand. It has an identity and when you deconstruct that brand or shed light on some of its myths, it becomes problematic. The contest organisers were wonderful and forthcoming, but I also felt there was some tension when we were filming in 2011. They shut us down so many times. We had to renegotiate access. Durga Vahini also shut us down once – on the first day of shooting because Pragnya’s trial had just begun and it was a lot in the media. For a while it looked like we didn’t have access to them. But we managed of convince them. But there were lots of difficulties, in terms of what and when we could and could not shoot. We wanted to make a very intimate film; follow a couple of girls from each camp and really explore the process of their transformation and make it into a journey film. But we weren’t allowed to do that. So we had to really rethink what the film was going to be in the end.

Miss India Pooja Chopra 2009

Miss India Pooja Chopra 2009

What was the process you followed in terms of structure for ‘The World Before Her’? 

It’s a very instinctive and organic process. Each documentary film maker has his or her own approach. I am compelled by the question I am asking through the film. I go on a journey as a filmmaker and as a person trying to ask that question and hopefully, it’s interesting enough for the audience. I also truly feel that a film really takes a life of its own. With this particular film, we had hundreds of hours of footage, so my editor-David Kazala and I just spent four and a half months just looking going through the footage and talking about how we were going to structure it as it was a complicated narrative.

Is the film entirely made with finances gathered through crowd-funding? 

The actual making of the film was financed by broadcasters and funding agencies around the world. The crowd-funding process is just to get the film released in India and take it across the country with women’s rights activists. I raised money for that through Kickstarter and some really generous private foundations in the United States.

‘The World Before Her’ first released in 2012, travelled to 125 film festivals across the globe and won several awards. Why did it take you two years to release it in India?

Anurag (Kashyap) and Shimit (Amin) believe that it’s such an important film for India, and the biggest irony is that the whole world has seen it before India. When I was speaking to bigger distributors in India, they liked the film but were just afraid to get involved because of the content and the potential for controversy. It’s a sensitive film with both the Times Group and the Durga Vahini group involved. People in India like to stay away from potentially controversial stuff. Nobody wanted to take it. I was working with a small marketing company and we were doing our bit, and then Anurag came on board and really changed the game. He took it on and made it public. His association has made a tremendous difference.

Did you ever worry for yourself as you were going to touch a controversial and sensitive subject through the film? 

Yes and no. Making a film on women’s rights was never a concern although, a lot of women activists in India have faced death threats and been beaten up. But I was afraid of the Bajrang Dal when I was shooting. I was spending a lot of time with them and filming them. So there were some moments that were uneasy and worried me. India is very emotional, charged and reactionary. There are chances that things will get taken out of context and that’s worrying.

Did you face any problems from any fundamentalist group while shooting or in recent times? 

No, I haven’t and the interesting thing is that for months and months I have been trying to get the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to watch it. I am in conversation with them, so they will see it. I am not worried because Prachi and her family really loved the film. They feel it’s extremely balanced and doesn’t portray the organisation in a negative way. It just presents them as they are.

prachi with prod team

Documentary filmmaking is not a very popular format in India. Internationally, is it a sustainable format of filmmaking?

It used to be a sustainable format of filmmaking, but it’s starting to change and it’s becoming harder and harder. There are so many production companies and filmmakers who I know have gone bankrupt or have started making reality TV or gone into television programming. It’s kind of a renaissance for documentary filmmaking around the world. There are huge numbers, in terms of audience turnout  at documentary film festivals. Netflix is kind of sponsoring documentaries. CNN has started to fund documentaries. People are actually watching documentaries in theatres in North America and Europe. It’s being looked at more and more as an art form and being respected, but the traditional way of getting documentaries financed has changed. The old broadcast model is disappearing and that’s kind of scary. A lot of documentary filmmakers are now taking the crowd-funding route. In United States there are a lot of private grants for it. Then film festivals like Sundance, Hot Docs, Tribeca have funds for documentary films. But it is getting extremely difficult to make documentaries.

It’s been eleven years since you started out as a researcher of documentary films. Do you plan to continue the path of non-fictional story-telling?

I think about that all the time. It’s funny because I love watching drama. Of course I watch documentaries but the films that I mostly watch are feature films. And yet, the films I want to make or the stories I want to tell are always documentaries. They are about real people. I think story-telling is story-telling, regardless of what form you are using but there’s something about real people and real stories that I find amazing, like Prachi. She was such a revelation. If somebody wrote her as a character I would say she’s exaggerated or not real. But she really exists. To find these amazing people in such complex environments is astounding and I feel it’s a gift that they let you into their lives. It’s very humbling actually. If I do branch out, and sometimes I do feel that I would like to try my hand at features, then I think it would be a small one; I wouldn’t make a big blockbuster. The films that appeal to me are Richard Linklater kind of films- Before Midnight and Before Sunset. Of course if Karan Johar wants to finance my film I would like to make a big Hindi film with Shahrukh Khan.

Prachi addressing a group of women

Prachi addressing a group of women

What is the plan after ‘The World Before Her’ releases in India? 

I definitely need a long break, but I think right now it’s so important for me to keep this going. After it’s theatrical release, I will take the film across the country. I feel in some sense the people who really need to see the film are the people who do not have access to it, in rural villages, small towns, etc. It’s outside the metros. I want to get them to engage in a very interesting way with the material and maybe they could have a take on it which we could be very different. I want to take it to places where female infanticide is still practiced and rape cases are climbing. I will take a break after that and work on my next film which is about the rise of fundamentalism around the world.

By Rachana Parekh