Nisha Pahuja’s remarkable documentary The World Before Her explores the place of young women in contemporary India through two very contrasting settings – the Miss India pageant and a women’s Hindu nationalist training camp.
While Miss India is a "factory producing modern Indian women", "polishing" English-speaking, city-living, upper middle-class young women into "diamonds", the training camp instils |discipline, strength and a love of country", alongside combat and firearm training, to lower middle class 15-to-25-year-olds from Hindi-speaking, small town India.
Both scenarios are full of bizarre moments, whether it’s watching 19-year-olds being coerced into botox injections and painful skin lightening treatment while being told to "keep chipper", or cherubic school girls marching down a highway, carrying rifles and chanting, "Ask for Kashmir and we’ll slit your throats".
By focusing on two women, Prachi, who would die and kill for Hindu India, and "fun loving and adventurous" Miss India-hopeful Ruhi, The World Before Her picks away at society’s expectations of women, in a country where 750,000 female foetuses are aborted every year and each week seems to bring fresh news of gruesome sexual violence against women.
Vice put in call to Canadian-Indian director Nisha Pahuja in Bombay, with crows cawing in the background, to talk Hoop Dreams, eating after men and why the last thing women need is the ‘protection’ of men.
VICE: Hi Nisha. What sparked the idea to make this film?
Nisha Pahuja: Have you seen Hoop Dreams? The initial idea was to use Miss India as a Hoop Dreams-style scenario, to follow young women using the pageant to find a better life. Through that you can make larger observations about something. Hoop Dreams was race, and I wanted to look at women’s rights and the relationship between Hindu nationalism and women’s bodies.
While researching I was introduced to a group of Hindu activists, and one was Prachi – who we follow in the film. She told me about women’s Hindu nationalist training camps. I began thinking about going back and forth between Miss India and the training camp, and exploring these contrasting visions of what India needed to be, as well as women’s place in all this.
This is the first time cameras have entered a women’s Hindu nationalist training camp. How did you build that trust?
It took a long time to build the relationships. I knew Prachi for two years before we started filming, and in that time you get to know somebody well and they get to know you well. In documentary, you become friends with your subject – you love them and they love you back. The relationship is very deep, and it goes both ways – they share things with you and so do you. It's about give and take, and you feel that closeness. And the relationship continues; two years after filming I speak to Prachi virtually everyday.
Were you asked about your views on Hindu nationalism?
Prachi, her father and the girls at the camp never asked me, "What do you think of us?" There was no room for discussion – they presented themselves as "this is what we believe and this is why". Even now when I talk to Prachi as friends, we rarely talk about her political beliefs. There's a wall that goes up and you can’t get past it. Prachi and the Hindu nationalists are absolutely convinced of the moral rightness of their position, so there's no need to have a discussion.
There was a moment we didn’t use in the film: we filmed Prachi and her father watching archival footage of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and Graeme Staines – the missionary – and his two sons, who were burned alive by Hindu nationalists. The idea was to show Prachi and her father the human cost of their belief system, but the callousness and the coldness with which they watched the footage was so shocking.
Prachi and her father felt everything that happened to those people – Muslims and Christians – was warranted and necessary. There was no regret, no sense of, "My goodness – two innocent boys were burned alive"; just a thorough conviction it was just. As far as they were concerned the missionary came to convert our Hindu poor to Christianity, so they deserved it.
Does Prachi feel like she’s been portrayed fairly?
She is thrilled with the response to the film. She goes to the cinema every day in Pune to watch it. Today, she’s going with 50 people from her office, so she’s really excited.
Since the documentary was filmed two years ago her life has changed quite a bit. I naively felt she might change some of her Hindu nationalist beliefs. She hasn’t at all. However, she has become a stronger woman – she doesn’t live at home any more; she’s working and has moved in with roommates.
On to the Miss India part of the film; the scene where the contestants walk down a catwalk with their faces and upper bodies covered in a white sheet to decide who has the best legs is shocking.
That’s the one scene everyone comments on because the contestants are completely dehumanised – their faces and identities are covered and they're reduced to objects. It’s even more complex because it makes you think of the KKK and burqas. It’s so surreal and so wrong on so many levels. If we break it down, Miss India is an industry that’s really bizarre, and a guy was given a job to figure out who had the best pair of legs, and he thought that this was the best way to do his job. But it’s not the individual; it’s the system that we have to question.
The same applies to giving botox injections to 19-year-old girls. It’s the fact we live in a world where these things are acceptable – that young people go through these ordeals and swallow their dignity to achieve something. The more I got into the filming, I felt this was not a film about women in India, but two young women in a country that reflects the global world – they are a mirror to all of us, not just India.
How does The World Before Her relate to female infanticide and sexual violence against women?
It’s all connected. There’s a very definite sense that women’s lives are not valued in the same way as men's, and this is where these horrific things come from. While I was researching I went to a wedding, and I – like all of the women – ate after the men. I had forgotten that as a woman you’re told your place is after men, that your stomach matters less than a man’s, that your hunger matters less than your husband’s or your son’s.
Is there a sense that things are changing?
People are starting to demand change on so many levels. If you talk to feminists there is a backlash against women because women are entering spaces reserved for men, like the workforce, and earning more money than their fathers earned. There’s a definite progression for women and a real desire for independence – that’s amazing.
The Delhi gang rape has been a real wake up call. With my film, there's been dialogue with lots of men who are questioning their privilege and saying it’s made them look at women differently. Even Modi coming to power – for many it’s deeply problematic and there’s something very dark about it, but it does point to an optimism and hope; people want change.
Sexual violence against women seems like it’s in the news on a weekly basis
Sexual violence against women has been going on for a very long time, the difference is the media is now reporting it. The reaction to the teenage girls who were raped, murdered and hung from trees in Uttar Pradesh was huge. Outrage is building and spreading; people aren’t tolerating this any more – the villagers wouldn’t let the police near the bodies as a protest. These girls weren’t from middle class, metropolitan India – they were from the bottom. So it shows people are starting to understand the power of what they can accomplish.
The World Before Her is available to download through iTunes.