Filmmaker Explores India's Complex Identity
In "The World Before Her," Nisha Pahuja looks at the extremes of India's evolving notions of gender.
When Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja went back to her native India to do research for her first documentary, "Bombay Bound," she got invited to an event, a sort of homecoming party for a Miss World winner. The reaction of people at the party made a big impression on her.
“It really struck me how there was a tremendous amount of euphoria and pride,” she said. “It was sort of like an athlete had won a gold medal.”
Pahuja felt the interest in the pageants – rampant in India now, she says – had something to say about the country’s identity and the changing role of women there. In her latest movie, "The World Before Her," which won the World Documentary Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival this year and screens in the 10th Annual South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco on September 22, she explores that world – filming 20 young women from around the country who show up in Bombay for a month-long beauty boot camp where they are told how to walk, speak, wear make up, and in the words of one women who teaches them diction, are “polished like diamonds.” For the contestants, winning can mean a lucrative career, stardom and maybe more freedom in a patriarchal society.
“Clearly the pageants objectify women and can be demeaning, but I think in context of India, which is such a sexually conservative society, the fact that they were able to reveal their bodies is a symbol for some people of a certain kind of progress,” Pahuja says. “It takes so much courage for a women in India to do such a thing – in some sense they’re taking ownership of their bodies.”
Along with many feminists in India who object to the pageants, Hindu fundamentalists oppose them, calling them immoral and a symbol of the Westernization of India. In "The World Before Her," Pahuja shows this world as well. As a contrast to the lives of young women getting ready to compete for the title of Miss India, she filmed girls at a camp run by Durgha Vahini, the women’s wing of a militant fundamentalist movement.
Pahuja says it took her two years to get access to these camps, where film crews had never been allowed before. She heard about them through a young woman, Prachi, an instructor at the camps, and ended up moving to India to really get to know her and the others involved.
In the movie, we see the young women striving for a crown getting Botox injections; wearing tight jeans and ripped T-shirts at a photo shoot where they are instructed to look sexy, not bitchy (when one of the contestants, Ruhi, sees the photo in the paper, she speculates that the nation's president might be looking at it); and walking with sheets over their heads, so the onlookers will only judge them by their legs. And we also see the young girls at the fundamentalist camps dressed in traditional Indian clothing such as salwar kameez, smiling as they talk about their pride in not having any Muslim friends, and chanting they will slit the throats of anyone trying to take Kashmir from India.
Pahuja was careful to not let her shock at these moments show in the finished movie. She says she had no interest in sensationalizing what she saw in either of the two worlds.
“When I was making the film, the person in me reacted to things all the time,” she said. “You can’t help it. My blood would turn cold when little girls are screaming about slitting the throats of people, and there are lots of moments like that. I would think. ‘I can’t believe these young women are getting Botoxed. I can’t believe they are walking around with sheets over their heads.’ But I didn’t editorialize. I don’t like films that hit you over the head. Culture is complicated, but there’s no point in sitting in judgment although you can’t help but feel things because you’re human.”
Another reality Pahuja presents in "The World Before Her" is how girls are seen as less valuable than boys – in both of these different worlds. The mother of the winner of the contest, Pooja Chopra, Femina Miss India 2009, talks about how she had left her husband after he told her to put the baby in an orphanage or kill her. And Prachi, the fundamentalist camp instructor – who says she likes it when the girls at the camp are afraid of her because it makes her feel important – sits by smiling as her father talks about heating up an iron rod and burning her foot when she lied as a child. “He has the right,” she says about her father hitting her. “He has given me birth, knowing that I’m a girl child, he let me live. In a traditional family, people don’t let the girl child live. They kill the child.”
In the movie, Pahuja includes the statistic that 750,000 girls are aborted in India every year. She wonders what will happen in a country so obsessed with sons.
“What I’m trying to explore with the film is how women are being used in India to create two ideas of nationalism,” she said. “There are these two competing ideologies and they are playing themselves out on the bodies of women.”
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