In Conversation With Director Nisha Pahuja

To celebrate the women in media, day four of the London Asian Film Festival started with the screening of The World Before Her directed by Nisha Pahuja. Nisha was born in Delhi, and raised in Toronto. After studying English literature, she got into documentary filmmaking, because she wanted to make incredible revealing stories. Her documentary film The World Before Her which released back in 2012, is a story that shows the two sides of societies and their belief system regarding the women in India. Nisha shows a very realistic portrayal in her documentary of two very different challenging parties and differentiating their mind-sets; The Miss India beauty contest and Durga Vahani (a Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls). The World Before Her has won awards for Best Canadian Feature at the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and received a great amount of critical acclaim in India.

LAFF is honoured to have renowned documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja among us as she talks exclusively with us about her documentary, aspirations, and thoughts about the women in media today with journalist/blogger Sana Nooruddin.

SN: Hi Nisha, it was a sheer delight to watch your documentary The World Before Her. I would like to know, what inspired you to make The World Before Her?

NP: First of all, I just wanted to make a film on Miss India, but then I thought it will be more interesting to show in my documentary the cultural changes that are taking place in India and how things are changing for women. That was the initial idea, and then it got more developed as I got into researching in-depth on this subject.

SN: Were you ever fascinated by the fashion/modeling industry, was there this bug in you that wanted to dig in and find out more about what goes behind?

NP: Actually, it wasn’t really about the fascination of the fashion industry, it was really about “women” and their “thoughts”, and how their imaginations reflect the society.

SN: How was it like shooting at the Durga Vahani camp and interacting with the girls over there – Did it ever make you feel fearful or intimidated?

NP: No it never made me feel fearful or intimidated, rather I often felt sad to see young girls being brain washed by lovely women for such horrific things. And it was interesting to meet the girls, interact, and spent good 10 days with them. We actually lived in the Durga Vahani camp with them. And I also shared my thoughts with them.

SN: When you interacted with the Miss India finalists on a personal level, what could you sense the most about; was it how we saw in the documentary their hunger to win the contest – Was it all about winning?

NP: You know they were models like Ankita (Shorey), who did win one of the crowns, so Ankita felt that winning the title will give her an identity outside the normal roles that women are supposed to do like a job. For her it was all about fighting for the freedom of her right, and also for the few other models filmed in the documentary believed that as well.

SN: One of the models in the documentary gets asked during the general questions round that “How would you react if you found out, your son was gay” and she looks shocked for a moment. Do you think it was unfair to ask that question on a Miss India platform?

NP: I thought it was a really interesting question, you know. Because it’s about how media is portrayed in India, you just see a very rigid side that is kind of stuck in the past and women are very traditional. But there’s actually a side of India that really is as engaging as here (London). The question also made me feel to look at the world which is evolving.

SN: Do you sometimes feel that this society is a male dominated society or as they call it a “man’s world” in terms of addressing the gender inequality such as men getting higher pay than women even today?

NP: You know, I have to say that these things make me feel very angry and one has to fight for them. However I believe it is evolving, like an African woman (Michelle Obama) is the wife of the president of the United States. So I look at these things in a much bigger context, I just have a lot of faith in the evolution and change.

SN: What is your take on BBC’s latest documentary by Leslee Udwin “India’s Daughter”?

NP: I think; I loved how Jyoti (Singh) brings the light to that film. You really feel for her and her family, that she’s a full human being. It was a good film however I had some issues with it.

SN: Did the documentary make you re-think your beliefs?

NP: No, it didn’t.

SN: How do you react to reports such as “Blame Bollywood and item songs for rapes”, do you think the television projection really influences peoples?

NP: Yeah, I do. But if you look up at the videos in the United States they are far more exposing. The media influences people in the way how we respond to them, and what we think. This is a really important question, because if you speak to a feminist in India they will definitely say it is because of the women who are projected in the media, but I don’t think rape is because of this reason. Rape is such a complicated subject, that I always get a little bit uncomfortable about its questions as I don’t think anything can be “blamed” on it. Rape is a power and violence, and a lot of men watch Bollywood music videos, and I don’t think after watching it they go out and just rape women. I think it’s about their up-bringing and I really find it frustrating how it is portrayed in the media.

SN: And if it was your way, how would you choose to project it?

NP: I don’t know yet, but it really frustrates me that when these young women who are deep rooted see images that are highly photo-shopped in the media, and think it’s all real and then they try to adapt that. All of a sudden everything starts to seem so shallow and darker then.

SN: Lastly, are there any upcoming projects or a topic that you would like to address the most in your next documentary?

NP: I think that at the moment the topic that is really interesting me is “masculinity” , and redefining masculinity. Or actually just redefining gender, let’s just get rid of this whole gender issue. I feel it’s actually just patriotism. We need to look beyond gender and ourselves.

SN: It was a pleasure talking to you Nisha and getting to know you, up close and personal. Thank you very much.

NP: Thank you very much for having me.

By: Sana Nooruddin


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