The parallel narrative structure employed by director Nisha Pahuja in THE WORLD BEFORE HER is both brilliant and beguiling. It immediately lulls viewers into seeing her subjects—the women participating in the 2011 Miss India beauty pageant, and a fundamentalist Hindus in a girls camp—as binary, opposing forces. But as Pahuja unspools her story, nuances emerge that challenge such a reductive reading of these groups. Both the pageanteers and Hindutva nationalists are searching for their place in a patriarchal society with a deep-running strain of misogyny. The women are also linked by individual struggles with issues spanning the scope of humanity—class, religion, race, sexual identity, individuality and freedom, to name a few. Later in the film, Pahuja shows both aspiring beauty queens and Hindu militants in more candid moments expressing ambivalence toward their own extreme positions. Thoughtful viewers may be surprised to find themselves doing the same. Following the screening, Pahuja fielded questions from the audience. Click “Read more” below for the Q&A.
Audience: I thought you really struck gold with Prachi. How obvious was it to you when you first met her that you wanted to profile her? And how hard was it to get her to watch the pageant?
Nisha Pahuja: When you meet somebody like Prachi it’s like getting a brick thrown at your head. It’s sort of a no-brainer. You go, I can’t believe somebody like you really exists. It was fairly straightforward to decide that she was going to be one of the characters that I would follow. In terms of getting her to watch the pageant, she was incredible, as was her family. They were extremely generous, and let me do pretty much whatever I wanted. They had no issue with it. I know that her father felt really uncomfortable, and there were times when he would put his head down. Prachi’s mom was transfixed. There was a sort of running commentary thoughout—I love her hair, I love that frock. And I think Prachi was sort of embarrassed by her mom. I think Prachi was more uncomfortable.
Audience: I love the fact that no character is admirable or reprehensible in the extreme, it’s not one versus another. I have a basic question: Everybody seems to be using a mix of languages. Is that what’s done? Or did you have an influence on that because you speak English?
Pahuja: No, in India, often people will do that. It’s called Hinglish, people often switch back and forth, it’s quite common.
Audience: How did you gain access to the camp, since you were the first person to do that?
Pahuja: I knew that if I was going to get access to the camp, if I was going to make any actual inroads I was going to have to get people to trust me. Which meant I had to spend lots of time in India. So that’s what I did. I basically divided my time between India and Canada. It took two years to get access to the camp, but I just spent a lot of time talking with and meeting people. And people at various points in the food chain, so people who were really high up and then foot soldiers.
Audience: Have the characters seen the film?
Pahuja: None of them have, but I’m actually going to India in about three weeks, so I’ll definitely show it to Prachi and her family. I’m sort of anxious and excited about that. And we’ll show it also to Ruhi and her family.
Audience: How many girls are in the fundamentalist camps?
Pahuja: There’s a couple hundred of them that take place each year across the country, and there’s usually anywhere between 100 to 300 girls at each camp. Sometimes they’re smaller, but they’re usually about 100 girls. Bombay tends to have the largest ones. The place I shot had a smaller camp.
Audience: How many years have these camps been going on?
Pahuja: I’m not really sure about the camps, but the movement began in 1992. It was actually a response to the Ayodha dispute [in which a mosque was destroyed by hardline Hindus].
Audience: There were a lot of similarities between what was going on in the camps, and in the pageants. The latter is a form of oppression that’s more familiar to the people in this country, and probably seems normal. It’s put forth as progress for women in India. My question is, what happens to the young women who didn’t win?
Pahuja: Ruhi actually participated again in the 2012 pageant, and again she lost. Often this pageant is a launching pad for Bollywood. So one of the winners is now sort of getting into Bollywood. She’s meeting with agents and has been very picky about who she signs with. For other girls who lose, there’s an incredible amount of visibility. It’s a country of about 1.2 billion people, so if you’re selected to be one of the 10 contestants, the visibility is extraordinary. A lot of the girls who lost have gone on to modeling.
Audience: All of the men we see seem to be off-center or off-base. Why is that?
Pahuja: Well, not all men in India are like that. Ruhi’s dad is actually quite wonderful. But India is a patriarchal society. It’s slowly changing, but change happens very slowly. I think men throughout history have tried to control women.
Audience: You obviously chose really extreme examples. Did you do that deliberately, and not show the booming middle class that might be more moderate? I was wondering is Ruhi a college dropout? And what about Prachi?
Pahuja: All of the pageant contestants had gone through college. In earlier years they hadn’t been. A lot had come from very poor families or farms. There is a burgeoning middle class and there are women who are getting educated in India. But for me, I wanted to show two ideas of India being put forth, and how women are being used to put forth these two competing ideas. That’s why I chose the two groups. I think sometimes people might be missing context. Originally we had a feminist and her daughter. And I was hoping they would be that middle voice, and put the two other stories into some kind of a larger context, but they were so extreme. They were yet another extreme. And they were so full of anger and rage. It felt like the film sort of lost its balance, so I stuck to these two.
Audience: You said that these ideas are using women, but I think the women are using these ideas as well. Prachi’s very conscious of the irony of her ambition, and how it’s against this philosophy. Did you get that feeling from the other leaders of the Hindutva movement? Did you sense that irony amongst the leaders whom you feature?
Pahuja: No, I didn’t. I think Prachi was more aware than some of the other girls in the camp. But there was certainly a kind of feminist angle to the camp. There was a sense of empowering these young girls on the one hand. And on the other hand, making sure they were going to be homemakers. They were getting these mixed messages.
Audience: I was wondering what made you decide to make this film?
Pahuja: I love India, I go there all of the time. I’m sort of half-based there. And I was looking for another project, and I came up with looking at this Miss India pageant, and using it as a way to look at India as a country in transition. And the more I started to reading about the pageant, and pageants in general in India, the more I started to come across the ideas of the fundamentalists, and also the feminists who were opposed to them. The film kind of developed from there. Being an Indian woman, obviously you can relate to the struggles of the girls onscreen. The deeper I got into it, the more personal it became. But it didn’t start off that way.
Audience: Have you been able to screen this film in India?
Pahuja: Not as yet, no. There are plans to do a test screening in India, but Tribeca is the first, actually.
Audience: Did you get a sense of the level of education of the girls in the fundamentalist camps?
Pahuja: At least half or more than half were from villages, and didn’t get an education. But Prachi’s educated.