Documentary Talk: Nisha Pahuja Uncovers “The World Before Her”
The World Before Her is an internationally acclaimed documentary that follows the journey of two contemporary Indian women who are quite different in their ideas and upbringing. It’s a film that portrays the contrasting life of a Miss India contestant named Ruhi and a strong Hindu nationalist named Prachi. Indo-Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, director of this captivating new documentary talks to Pandolin about her journey and challenges she faced while making this film.
How did you get the idea to make a film on this subject?
The film is about two camps i.e. the Miss India contestants and the women in the Durga Vahini camp. Though, initially the film was about only Miss India pageant. But once I started to meet women contestants and got to know about people opposition towards them, then my entire point of view changed. I realized that the film has to include both voices of opposition and defendants. And then I met Prachi who is one of our key characters from the film. She told me about the Durga Vahini camp. That’s when I got the idea that I have to make a film looking at the two opposite worlds. So, it was actually a process that evolved.
How difficult was it to get access into the Miss India preparations and Durga Vahini camp?
There was lot of research and preparation involved that enabled us to get access to these two camps. Getting access to Miss India was actually pretty straightforward. But once we got into the pageant, the contestants became so nervous and anxious that we were called to negotiate the access. And thereafter, shooting Miss India turned extremely difficult. And in case of the Durga Vahini camp, it took us almost 2 years to get access.
While I was living in Mumbai and meeting people from all sorts of background such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and RSS, one of the people I met was an editor for one Hindi newspaper. When I told him that I am looking for young people having firm conviction for Hindutva, he brought few people to me and one of them was Prachi. However, it took us very long to enter Durga Vahini camp because those people don’t just give access to their world just by asking them. You have to get to know them and they have to know you. So I had to build relationship with them over a period of time.
What kind of relationship did you form with the main characters of your documentary?
The women who were going to the Miss India pageant were potentially in a kind of life changing scenario. So there was certain vulnerability. Normally, in this situation, a woman would do one of the two things. Either she becomes so afraid that she doesn’t want to let her guards down or she lets you in. The Miss India contestants like Miss Pooja and Miss Ruhi actually let me in.
With Prachi, we definitely developed a very strong friendship and relationship over a time. By nature, she is a very honest and blunt person. Hence, she developed a real closeness, not just with me but the entire crew. Together, we created such an environment that along with the subject everybody became the part of making this documentary. We created a world of openness and trust and hopefully humanity where you easily allow yourself to be seen and exposed without being judged.
How did you manage to get your shots or elements that you wanted to incorporate in your film without understanding the language?
I did interviews with people in the Durga Vahini camp and of course I did all of that in Hindi. I was able to understand the language a little bit but there were people who were interpreting things for me. My crew also understood Marathi, so they knew what was significant or not while shooting. Besides, we shot a lot actually because I didn’t know what on earth we were getting and I didn’t want to miss anything. And I am really glad that we did because there are moments in the film, which are really incredible. Though at that time, I had no idea what people were saying but after working with an interpreter and going through all the footage for months, I ultimately realized that I got something really endearing.
When did you begin shooting and how long did it take to complete the shoot?
I started shooting in 2009 but it took quite long because of two reasons. One, it was really difficult to raise the money and that was one of our key concerns. Though we had few foreign broadcasters who agreed to fund us yet we were constantly struggling till they released the money. Secondly, getting access to the Durga Vahini camp seemed almost impossible. I was so unsure about getting access to the camp that I started filming with somebody else, a guy who was a male counterpart of Prachi. We stayed at Durga Vahini camp for ten days and with Miss India contestants for one month.
Which camera format did you employ for the film?
We shot the film on EX3 and Canon 5D.
As a director, what was your creative approach towards the film?
For me, it became quite difficult to even have a creative approach because the worlds we were given access to, were restricted in every sense. Everything was limited and curtailed i.e. where we could shoot from, the angles we could get, how close we could go to our subject etc. Besides, in case of the Miss India contestants, there was also a reality television crew that was also following them. So constantly, we were getting in each other’s way. Initially, the idea was to make it a much more observational film, by actually watching those women going through the process of transformation and living their journey through them. But since, we were not allowed that kind of access to the characters, all that cinematic thought went out of the window. However, we still managed to uncover their worlds in the best possible manner.
Were your shots planned or decided on the location considering you had a very limited access?
Some of my shots were planned because I actually spent a lot of time doing research, in 2009. I just spent one month following the Miss India camp. So I observed a lot during that time and when I actually came to shoot, I tried to remember and capture all those things. For example, if you want to show the girls training then you can’t just show them tense. Instead, you show them in certain ways because the way you are going to show something, its also going to convey an idea. Now, sometimes you get lucky and you are able to get those shots and sometimes not. So, you have to be very elastic and malleable when you are making documentaries.
Tell us about the editing process of this film?
I had such a beautiful footage for the film, for example, we have these magical shots of the Ganpati festival in Bombay and some big giant shots of Hindutva valley and I was so obsessed with all these extraordinary visuals that somehow I wanted to keep all of them. But then in the editing room, the film actually tells you what it wants to be. You begin to recognize that in someway the film is directing you as opposed to you directing it. It is a really magical process of editing and I happened to work with a brilliant editor. So much of the success of the film has to do with the way my editor put it together and it absolutely looks stunning.
Now, my editor is somebody who is not familiar with India. He has never been here and doesn’t know the culture. He is a Canadian from Poland. So the first five months what we did is look at the footage and talk actually. We talked immensely about the country and its dualities as well as complexities. And after that initial process, we hired a second editor also because we had so much material. In my instinct, I always knew that we have a potentially very powerful film and once we got the space and time to edit it, we did make it happen. It was a pretty incredible experience.
Are you satisfied with the way film has come out or you feel there could have been more elements?
I think what we have got is pretty powerful and audience has responded to it in a very deep and emotional way. So, I don’t regret it at all. In fact, I am glad that we took out some other elements that we originally thought of putting up in the film, for example the male character, who we started with. I feel, adapting to the feminist kind of story line proved the right choice for us.
What was your major learning throughout the film?
Any film basically starts with a thesis or a question and the process of making the film is actually trying to answer that question for yourself. At least that’s how I make films and that’s why I take so long. I think what really special about this film is that its kind of my own personal journey navigating through these two different worlds reflecting contemporary modern-day India.
As a filmmaker and as a person, I started out thinking that these two worlds are completely opposite but over the course of making the film and spending so much time with Prachi and Ruhi, I realized that these two worlds aren’t very different at all. In fact there are more similarities between these two worlds than there are differences. And that’s what so striking about this.
When you watch these two worlds from a distance, women in them simply become the mirror of the country. They are just a part of India and what India is at a particular juncture in the history. Now for me India is a country that’s undergoing through huge political, social and economic upheaval. It’s changing and I don’t think people are even able to understand the speed or the impact that this change is having.
For me, it became important at one point that not to answer any question but actually just show the country as it is. In the west, we have this desire to put everything in categories and answer all sorts of questions because we come from this rational tradition. But that’s just not possible to do in a country like India. Here you can say the one thing and then you say something entirely different at the same time. Those two opposites are not even opposite and they all can coexist; sometimes comfortably and sometimes not comfortably. We just don’t understand this in west.
Here, the dichotomy is the things are the way they are. I got this understanding through the process of the film that what we think is bad or wrong might be just another way of looking at some thing. We shouldn’t really judge people because in some fundamental way none of us are really free. All of us are kind of shaped by forces and realities that are beyond our control. And this forces you to question the definition of freedom. I think that’s sort of emerged from me out of this film.
According to you, what are the key differences between Indian and western documentary film world?
In the west it’s completely different. There, you work with a producer who normally raises the money and invests while the director directs. Unfortunately, in India, people are less interested in watching documentaries. There are filmmakers and technology but no money to make certain kind of documentaries and cinema. And then we have this advent of reality television that has kind of shaped how people want to watch TV and what kind of stories interests them. In India, the market for documentaries is so miniscule that only certain kind of people make certain kind of documentaries that often tend to get more journalistic and boring.
What are the other projects you are working upon?
There are some concepts I am developing. Currently I am writing a story for News week magazine. Also, I am working on a series on the rise of fundamentalism around the world.
– As told to Priyanka Verma