Nisha Pahuja, New Delhi born and Toronto raised, got into documentary filmmaking after studying English lit, working in social services and then by working as a doc researcher. “For some reason,” after starting to make films thirteen years ago, she says, “I still make them–finding people with incredible stories that reveal to us something about the world we live in. And more importantly, something of what it means to be human. I could never ‘write’ a character like Prachi. The fact that she [the subject of ‘World Before Her’] exists is extraordinary to me. Sometimes I feel she found me as much as I found her.”
Pahuja now lives in Bombay and Toronto. She co-wrote and directed “Diamond Road,” winner of the 2008 Gemini Award for Best Documentary series, and her “Bollywood Bound” won a Gemini in 2002.
What it’s about: The Miss India beauty contest and a Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls–two competing ideas of India playing themselves out on the bodies of young women.
Director Pahuja says: “Once it was clear that the heart of the film would be about two opposing camps, my intention was to follow one or two girls in each world and watch as they went through a process of transformation. But in both worlds access to the girls themselves became an issue so the film became less about story and process and more about ideas and voices. It took a long time for me to make peace with that fact. But that is what documentaries do–they force you to bow before them. The film took four years to make and was shot over the course of three. As much as possible Dave Kazala (my editor) and I refrain from being morally judgemental of either world. That is critical for me. Films are limited in their ability to offer a comprehensive picture of something–they are by their nature incomplete. We can’t do justice to the complexity of history, culture and fundamentalism in 90 minutes. All we can do is show the worlds as they are, and how they are experienced through characters. This was our guiding principle in the hope that we make a film that inspired people to learn and question the world around them.”
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On the challenges: “The basic rule of this film was if something could go wrong it did. From being chronically underfunded; to managing the histrionics of 20 underfed, overworked, highly shrill beauty queens; to the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Indian customs who had no intention of releasing our equipment until all the right palms were greased and every person on the food chain got their piece of the pie; to the fundamentalist camp organizer who was not told a camera crew would be there and did everything in his power to shut us down after one day of shooting and two years of me trying to get access. There were near collapses from the heat, a sprained ankle, incessant fevers, break ups, hook ups and yet in spite of it all, or possibly because of it all, we got through it.”
What do you want the Tribeca audience to come away with? “I think what people will take from this film is very clear–a richer understanding of the choices that both a country and its women are facing. But what I feel is more important is this–that we don’t judge even what is clearly abhorrent. Robbing women of their equality and poisoning the minds of innocent girls is wrong but to hate those who do this is to continue a cycle of destruction. After making this film I realized we need to understand time in a different way. Most of us look at things only in the present and we see time as something that is the same the world over–it isn’t. Women are fighting for freedom now in India, just as they had to fight for it in the West and just as oppressed people have had to fight for millenia. Their struggle is a reflection of struggles past and other struggles still to come. Everything passes, everything changes, if we see the world in that way perhaps we can learn more compassionate ways of fighting for change.”
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch for the latest profiles.