Nisha Pahuja’s award winning documentary shot in India – a beauty camp pitched against a boot camp – is about social polarities.
Filmmaker Nisha Pahuja is undoubtedly delighted about the top honours she bagged at the 11th Tribeca Film Festival in the US for her documentary The World Before Her. In her overwhelmed state,Pahuja reminisces the how she shot the film,focussed on a fundamentalist Hindu group and a beauty pageant – two parallel movements in India contemptousof each other.
The trigger for this 90-minute documentary came four years ago,when Pahuja and one of the film’s producers,Ed Barreveld,talked about making a documentary set in India. “We thought a beauty pageant as a prism to explore a country undergoing cultural changes post-liberalisation,would make an interesting film,” says the Canada-based filmmaker. Once she started delving into the subject,Pahuja came across fundamentalists and feminists,two forces opposed to beauty pageants for very different reasons. “I began to realise that the balance had to shift,and that each world had to be represented equally in the documentary,” adds Pahuja.
One half of the film,which will soon premiere in Canada,focuses behind-the-scenes of a beauty pageant – where contestants are busy in a 30-day beauty camp. Pahuja spoke to a number of contestants for instance,Ruhi Singh,whose parents are supportive of her move,and Ankita Shorey,the winner about how it represents the modern Indian woman’s voice in the society. The other half of the documentary follows Prachi Trivedi,leader of a fundamentalist religious camp called Durga Vahini,that trains young girls in physical skills and arms,and teaches them about militant Hindu beliefs.
Pahuja says the most difficult part of filming was to get access into both these worlds. She spent many months in India,researching and getting permissions,and eventually became the first filmmaker to get access to shoot both these camps. It was the time she spent with journalists in Mumbai,which was instrumental in getting her introduced to the fiery Trivedi.
But how did she get all these people to narrate personal anecdotes? “I had to know people,but more importantly,they had to know me. However,I understood that no matter how extreme,abhorent,regressive or dangerous a person’s ideology may be,everyone wants to be heard. Also,the fact that everyone has become media-savvy made things easier,” she explains. Sometimes,filming two parallel worlds and merging them together could also result in one forming a stronger opinion over the other. But Pahuja claims she guarded herself against this.
The film eventually did serve a didactic purpose and Pahuja considers it to be one of the most important experiences of her life. “After the film was complete,I realised how impossible it is to understand and articulate the complexities of India which has still a long way to go when it comes to issues of women’s rights and human rights,” she concludes.