Juxtaposing two of India’s most distinct female worlds — that of the Miss India beauty pageant versus that of a militaristic camp that trains young girls to be Hindu nationalists — director Nisha Pahuja has created a powerful examination of the subcontinent’s patriarchal culture and what it means for the everyday Indian woman.
She recently answered a few of my questions via email.
How did you decide to develop these two storylines of beauty camp and Hindu camp?
I met Prachi, one of the Durga Vahini instructors, on a research trip and she told me about these nationalist camps for girls. At that point, I knew if I could get access to the camps than I would have a film that looked at two Indias being made on the bodies of women.
But it took nearly two years to get access, so I actually followed another fundamentalist storyline which was nearly as powerful but not an exact parallel. The decision to just go with the two camps was something we decided in the edit room.
We had hoped also to have a third voice, the feminist voice, to give context to the two opposing worlds. We simply did not have enough time and felt that the film lost some of its potency so we dropped the feminist angle and focused exclusively on the two worlds.
What can the beauty camp participants learn from the Hindu campers?
For a while, there were lots of people who felt Ruhi could learn self defense from Prachi and Prachi could get some pretty key grooming tips from Ruhi. But, alas, the two never did meet, though each has seen the film and liked the other very much.
I think what they could learn from each other is that they are all women living at this particular moment in their country’s history and, as such, are united in one common struggle: freedom.
Is there anyway that the New World can help the Old World of India? For instance, could the pageants become a place where concerns about Kashmir are discussed?
The problem with the “New World” is that it becomes interpreted as meaning flashy cars, Nike running shoes, and the latest shiny gadgets. Modernity becomes synonymous to materialism. That is what is happening in India.
What the New World has to really teach the so-called Old World is to appreciate certain values: equality of men and women, the importance of a society not based on class or caste. But all of this takes time. Every country goes through a process of discovering what it is going to become. I think we are seeing that now in India, with the Delhi gang rape, a country undergoing a process of self-reckoning.
Can beauty pageants ever become a forum for serious discussion? Never, in my mind. I don’t see how things which are fundamentally regressive can become platforms for national political issues in a serious way.
In America, the pageant life has taken over the lives of toddlers. Is that happening in India?
Thankfully, no, though reality TV based on competitions is huge!
You feature very powerful interviews with serious straight-talking about controversial subjects. Is that because you developed a strong trust with your sources or are Indian people more straight-forward in general when discussing these issues?
I think it’s a combination of both. Indians tend to be less guarded for the most part unless you are dealing with politicians and controversial subjects. I did become very close to Prachi and her family and they are passionate about their beliefs, so i feel they let their guards down in part because it is their nature to be expressive but also because they felt very close to myself and the crew and knew we were not judging them. I had very heated discussions and arguments with them all the time including on camera but they never clammed up as a result. And Prachi, I think, reveals much of herself emotionally in the film because she needed to.
The World Before Her screens on Tue., Jan. 29, 10:30 p.m, at the Metro 4, Wed., Jan. 30, 1 p.m., at the Metro 4, and Sat., Feb. 2, 4 p.m., at the Museum of Art. See worldbeforeher.com.