| Miss India 2009 Pooja Chopra poses during a photoshoot. Courtesy photo
The young women of the film “The World Before Her” are on a mission to shape the future of India—some with polished faces and well-manicured hands, and others through their tiger-like reflexes and skills with a rifle.
Director Nisha Pahuja takes a documentary approach and unprecedented access to the ultimate glamour event in a country gone mad for beauty contests while simultaneously following the transformation underway at an annual camp for young girls run by the Durgha Vahini, the women’s wing of the militant Hindu fundamentalist movement.
Pahuja will be one of the guests accompanying the film’s screening in this weekend’s Family of Woman Film Festival, which runs from Thursday, Feb. 28, to Sunday, March 3, with other impactful films from around the globe, two of which were Academy Award nominees. The festival benefits the United Nations Population Fund.
In “The World Before Her,” 20 young women from across India are arriving for an intense, month-long beauty boot camp. These women are the hand-picked contestants for the Miss India pageant. Winning the coveted title means instant stardom, a lucrative career path and freedom from the constraints of a patriarchal society.
In another corner of India, Pahuja takes the audience to a camp for young girls run by the fundamentalists. Through lectures and physical combat training, the girls learn what it means to be good Hindu women.
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.
Pahuja started off as a researcher for some of Canada’s brightest documentary talents and learned filmmaking under their mentorship. She co-wrote and directed “Diamond Road,” a three-part series on the global diamond trade for ZDF/Arte, TVO, Discovery Times and History Television. Shot all over the world, “Diamond Road” received the 2008 Gemini Award for best documentary series. The feature version of “Diamond Road” premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in 2007 as part of an OXFAM-Novib evening.
Her “Bollywood Bound,” about a quartet of Indo-Canadians who travel to India to make it big in Bollywood, screened at numerous film festivals and was widely telecast around the world. It was the closing night film at Hot Docs 2001 and was nominated for a Gemini in 2002.
“The World Before Her” is her third film. It was selected as the opening night documentary at the Tribeca Film
Festival in 2012 and has since been selected by more than 70 festivals worldwide. It has won a number of awards including won Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca; Best Canadian Documentary feature at Hot Docs; Best Foreign Film at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and Best Canadian Documentary at the Edmonton International Film Festival. It has appeared on a number of top 10 lists for 2012 including the TIFF Top 10 Canadian films and was recently nominated as best Canadian documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Association.
She fielded some questions in advance of her local premiere at the Sun Valley Opera House on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m.
IME: What were some of your goals with the film?
To erase boundaries, to get people talking and to show that people, no matter how difficult their beliefs are to swallow, are at the end of the day human, and that for us to really change things, we have to see them as human and not as “other.”
Have you heard from either camp in regards to your film? If so how have
Individual characters have seen the film but I have not had large screenings with either “camp,” as it were. The people who have seen it really, really liked it and felt it was balanced. Most importantly, they liked each other! So Ruhi, the Miss India contestant quite liked Prachi, and Prachi and her family quite liked Ruhi and wanted her to win.
Of the two pursuits, is one in actuality any more benign than the other? Both are exploitative in their own mode.
I would say that the Miss India pageant is much more benign than turning girls into Hindu fundamentalists.
For a motivated, well-supported woman with a dream, are there opportunities or must one choose to follow one of these camps to reach their goal? In other words, can or do these extremes force a middle ground to emerge?
That’s a great question. Yes, the two extremes do force a middle ground. And yes, there are opportunities available to women in India who have aspirations and goals. But there also is a glass ceiling both in the corporate world and other sectors. And there remains societal and familiar discrimination that continues to hold women back, even if they do manage to enter the organized work force. But then, that is to be expected. Change happens slowly and we’re talking about an ancient society built on the structures of patriarchy. No one wants to give up power, any kind of power, so it’s naive to think that things will change for women quickly or without conflict in India.
While you will be presenting the film to an enlightened audience here in Ketchum, have you found audiences merely gawking at the curious ways of today’s India or do they see the parallels in this country?
Audiences definitely see parallels between India and the United States. In fact, that was one of the goals of the film, to use India as a mirror to show the world back to itself. No matter where we are we must see that two of the largest ideological forces shaping our world today are fundamentalism and capitalism. India is where these two are playing themselves out in a very obvious way. But it’s important to see that these forces are also at work in the U.S. Also, we can’t rest on our laurels just yet where women’s rights are concerned. Without a doubt, we are further ahead than countries like India, but as one Indian feminist reminded me recently, Slut Walk [campaign against blaming rape victims for being sexually enticing] was something that originated in Toronto because of an offensive and archaic notion of female sexuality that is still propagated in the West.
Family of Woman Film Festival
Thursday, Feb. 28, to Sunday, March 3.
For a complete schedule of public events, see C3.
Tickets are $15 per premiere or $60 for all five films.
Benefits the United Nations Population Fund.
For up-to-date information, see www.familyofwomanfilmfestival.org