Many years ago on my first trip to India, I was invited to attend a reception in Bombay. The event was at a posh hotel and was attended by socialites, film stars and media types who had all gathered to celebrate Miss India—Yukta Mookhey—winning the Miss World pageant in London.
Yukta, as one would expect from a beauty queen, was resplendent. She towered over her subjects and had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. No matter where I stood on that terrace overlooking the Arabian Sea, I could see Yukta’s crown bobbing its way through the throngs. People were euphoric, filled with national pride. Having grown up in the West where most of us regard beauty contests as passé, I found Yukta’s homecoming both curious and moving. For me, it was as much about her as it was about India.
I have been going to India now for nearly 15 years, and the more time I spend there, the more I realize that what India does best is teach. It teaches one to see that assumptions are never safe and nothing is simple. Sabira Merchant, one of the key pageant voices in the film, says, “There are two Indias.” I would say there are many Indias, and they are doing battle with each other now, just as they always have been. In The World Before Her, I chose to focus on the battle between tradition and “modernity,” fundamentalism and capitalism, and how that battle plays out on the bodies of women. In some ways, what hangs in the balance is not just the future of women in this country but the very future of the country itself—for how can democracy flourish in a place so obsessed with sons that it aborts 750,000 girls every year? Distressing. But I remind myself that profound change can only happen slowly, and it is futile to hate or judge. Time is not the same the world over.
One generalization I will allow myself about India is this: Since the early 90s when the government first allowed foreign corporations and satellite TV to infiltrate the country’s shores, it has changed in dramatic ways. To say these changes are good or bad is in some ways to miss the point—for countries, like people, stumble and rise and evolve. I realized through the process of making this film that India is at a very interesting crossroads and, more and more, women in India are demanding to be heard. Sadly, as they are staking their claim in this new country, the violence and oppression against them continue to mount. History has shown repeatedly, however, that those who want freedom must fight for it, so women are fighting.
When producer Ed Barreveld and I embarked on making this film in 2008, both of us thought the Miss India pageant would be an interesting way of looking at modern-day India. And then two things happened on a research trip—I met Pooja Chopra, Miss India 2009, and later Prachi Trivedi, an instructor at Durga Vahini, a network of fundamentalist Hindu camps for girls. After I met them, I knew we had to try to do justice to the complexity of their lives.
Through Pooja I came to understand what a pageant really meant in a country like India. For many girls, its rewards went beyond fame and money. It was about freedom—freedom from the narrow geography of being a woman. And yet I had to wonder whether these girls were really free, or were simply trading in one set of shackles for another. That is the underlying question in the story of Ruhi Singh, our young pageant hopeful, who undergoes Botox injections and skin whitening, all in the hopes of winning the crown. I don’t know if Ruhi is more “free” than the girls at the fundamentalist camps, but I do know that she, like Prachi and all the women in the film, is a product of a particular time in her country’s history. A history the West is partly shaping. When so much goes into making us who and what we are, do we not then have to question the very notion of freedom itself?
Over the course of making the film I lived half the time in Bombay and half the time in Toronto. I think because of this I was able to make real inroads into the fundamentalist world.
Initially, the fundamentalists were to play a smaller part in the film, but once Prachi told me about the Durga Vahini camps, I knew if I could get access to one we’d be able to make a film that looked at two conflicting visions of India and Indian women.
Getting inside the camp took nearly two years. A camera crew had never before been given access. Somehow, through luck and chance and with Prachi’s guidance, I made the right connections, went through the right doors—and, perhaps most importantly, avoided the right people!
Apart from Prachi, the fundamentalists found me as curious as I found them—I was 40, unmarried and often disheveled-looking and my Hindi was both shrill and halting. Some of them insisted I bring my passport to meetings and show them my Indian visa; others were sure I was a Christian spy. But eventually most of them let their guards down, especially Prachi.
When editor Dave Kazala and I went through Prachi’s interviews, we often had to take breaks. Sometimes that was because we had no clue what she was saying, but often it was to recover from what she said. Prachi spewed such venom and was so insidiously poisoning the minds of young girls, and yet she herself was a victim of the system she was defending. The great tragedy, of course, is that she knew it but didn’t know how to break the cycle. As Ed Barreveld says, “If the film has a heroine at all, it’s her.”
Ironically, filming the fundamentalists was far simpler than filming the pageant world. It seemed like every time we were making real progress with one of the contestants, she was suddenly whisked off to hair and makeup, or some off-limits fitting or event for the sponsors. It was a nightmare. I knew I was missing out on process and real story. So I lost hair, and ate.
In the end, the film told us what it needed to be, as all films do. Along the way, Dave Kazala and I said goodbye to characters and storylines we had previously felt sure we couldn’t do without. All films have their challenges. This one was fraught with them. I know that I, producer Cornelia Principe, editor Dave Kazala and associate editor Sean Kang found The World Before Her the toughest film we’ve made. I also know that because of them, Mrinal Desai and Prachi Trivedi, it has been the most worthwhile.
— Nisha Pahuja, writer/director/producer