Its tagline is the Canadian International Documentary Festival and looking at the Hot Docs program (April 26 – May 6) it’s hard to tell which movies are Canadian and which are international. Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her is a case in point: the documentary was conceived and edited in Toronto but shot entirely in India.
The World Before Her contrasts two very different Indian training camps, one a beauty boot camp for Miss India contestants, the other a fundamentalist Hindu centre where young girls are indoctrinated and taught to fight against Western and Islamic influences. The film captured top prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival where it premiered April 19.
“Initially it was just going to be about the Miss India pageant as a way to look at this country in transition,” says Pahuja (pictured). “And the fundamentalism was going to be a little sidebar. And then I started digging and I met Prachi who is the fundamentalist camp leader and the contrast was so striking we decided to expand that part of the film.”
Pahuja’s choice was partly a pragmatic response to shifting challenges. As Miss India preparations gathered speed it became clear that the film crew was not getting the access it needed to really tell the whole story: “The girls were just too busy, going from morning until night,” the director recalls.
Fortunately, Pahuja has been making docs long enough to bend with the wind and tack in a different direction when necessary.
“Life is imperfect,” she concedes. “I’ve learned to accept what I’m being given and work with it. You have to have an idea of what you want to achieve and yet you also need a certain elasticity.”
By rolling with the punches Pahuja ended up with a deeply layered and compelling film that considers female emancipation and objectification in the developing world. Ultimately, the director concluded that the two sides of her doc dovetailed nicely: “The two opposing worlds really felt like they belonged together.”
Given the complex subject matter, Pahuja leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions, which will likely vary depending on where in the world the movie is being seen.
The director’s personal feelings are less ambivalent: “My opinion about the fundamentalist camp is clear,” she says. “I think the camps are poisoning the minds of young girls. I think the camps should be banned.”
“My feelings about Miss India are more slippery. There’s a part of me, the feminist part, that feels like it’s wrong to judge women according to their physical attributes, to turn them into pieces of meat. And yet in a country like India, where women don’t have the same opportunities as we do in the West, where their choices and their agency are limited, the pageants are an amazing thing that allows these women to gain a measure of independence and financial freedom, not all of them, but some of them. So in that sense I feel it’s important. But once women do have equal rights and equality I hope those sorts of things would fall by the wayside. They won’t need pageants, that’s the hope anyway.”
WHERE/WHEN: The World Before Her screens May 2 (Isabel Bader, 7 pm), May 5 (TIFF Bell Lightbox, 9:30 pm) and May 6 (Isabel Bader, 11 am); Hot Docs runs April 26 – May 6 at various locations, see festival website for details.
Photo of Nisha Pahuja by Christopher Jones, film stills courtesy Storyline Entertainment