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14-year-old Chinmayee poses with a rifle at the Durga Camp graduation ceremony/ Courtesy Nisha Pahuja

Documentary maker discovers surprising allies within India’s patriarchal society

By Brigit Katz on November 19, 2015

In one of the more striking moments of The World Before Her, a searing exploration of Indian identity by documentarian Nisha Pahuja, contestants of the Miss India pageant strut across a beachside catwalk with long, white cloaks tied over their heads. The goal of the exercise, according to the pageant’s director, is to determine who has the most attractive legs. “Sometimes you may get thrown a beautiful girl, lovely hair, she walks so good, has a great body,” he says before the contestants parade before him, looking like absurdly lithe versions of Caspar the Ghost. “We don’t want to see that. I just want to see beautiful, hot legs.”

The fraught avenues of advancement for women in India function as a central theme in The World Before Her, extracts of which will be featured in a panel at the Women in the World India Summit. The glittering pageant universe emerges as a symbol of an evolving, Westernizing India. Despite its depressingly misogynistic trappings, the competition offers contestants a rare opportunity to have a voice, to garner attention and power, within a patriarchal society.

Director Nisha Pahuja attends the "World Before Her" Premiere during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
Director Nisha Pahuja at the 2012 “World Before Her” premiere in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

The second half of The World Before Her is devoted to the Hindu right, which ardently opposes the Miss India pageant and everything it represents. Pahuja was allowed unprecedented access into a fundamentalist Hindu training camp, which encourages young girls to take up violence against Muslims, Christians, and any other perceived threat to traditional Hinduism. Anchoring the film’s exploration into this world is a raspy-voiced, tough-talking young woman named Prachi, who declares herself a firm devotee of the Hindu right, while at the same time flouting intense pressure from both the movement and her family to become a wife and mother.

Now that Pahuja has explored how competing ideologies of Indian identity play out on the bodies of women, she is turning her attention to the country’s men. This summer, she will begin filming Send Us Your Brother, which will delve into the complex pressures that are placed on males living in “the new India,” as Pahuja puts it. Women in the World spoke to the director about contradictory notions of Indian womanhood, the inspiration behind Send Us Your Brother, and the tragic symbolism of her new film’s title.

Women in the World: Did you always plan to feature both the Miss India pageant and the fundamentalist training camp in The World Before Her?

Nisha Pahuja: When I first conceived of the film, my focus was the Miss India contest. I wanted to look at the pageant as a way to explore changing ideas of what it meant to be a woman in India post economic liberalization. The early 90s marked a very powerful turning point for India as it opened its doors to foreign capital and foreign ideas. Miss India had been around since 1947, but it was in 1994, after two young Indian women won both the Miss World and Miss Universe titles that becoming a beauty queen took on a much larger meaning.

When I began the research process, I started to read about the voices of opposition to pageants in India. These come from two camps: the feminist movement (which is very robust in India) and the Hindu right. I knew at that point that I needed to expand the focus of the film to include the voices of opposition because it was ultimately a story about a country in transition. In that uncertain future, women’s bodies were key because they were, and frankly remain, the site where competing ideologies and competing visions of national identity play themselves out.

WITW: The Hindu camp encouraged its female attendees to become fighters, but it also represents a movement that imposes very rigid restrictions on women’s behavior. What did you make of that contradiction?

NP: I found that contradiction so fascinating, but what I found even more fascinating was that none of the organizers in the camp understood this. They looked at me like I was some kind of narrow-minded fool when I spoke to them about this. There is something to be said about the many contradictions that co-exist in India, but I think there is something to be said about the many contradictions all of us constantly navigate and inhabit.

WITW: The pageant contestants seemed to view the Miss India pageant as a platform for advancement and empowerment, yet some of the practices involved in the competition — like Botox and skin-whitening sessions, for example — seemed oppressive. Do you think the contestants found the empowerment they were looking for?

NP: I think some of the young women in the pageant absolutely found the empowerment they were looking for. Empowerment is also a gradual term and it means something different at different moments in ones life. At the stage they were at, some of the women for sure were able to use Miss India as a stepping stone toward a dream. For others, I know the level of artifice was problematic. For me, the issue really is: how do we move forward so that a young woman doesn’t look at whiter skin and Botox as an opportunity to make something of herself?

WITW: Can you begin to answer that question?

NP: God, if I had an answer, I’d run the world. I certainly know, as a young woman, how much of my self-worth and value came from trying to fit into society’s definition of what I should look like and how I should be. It was such a defining construct. And I don’t know how we do away with those things, and whether we can. But the thing with India, for example, is that there are so few role models for women, other than beautiful women, or Bollywood actresses. I think that has to change. Once you start to see other women who are doing interesting things, and powerful things, and profound things, I think that changes the way we start to look at ourselves, and what we feel we can aspire to.

Miss India contestants line up to be judged in the swimsuit round/ Courtesy Nisha Pahuja
Miss India contestants line up to be judged in the swimsuit round/ Courtesy Nisha Pahuja

WITW: Have you kept in touch with Prachi?

NP: Yeah, I see her every time I go to India. Prachi is kind of extraordinary. She finished law school. She moved out of her house. She lives by herself, or I think she had a roommate in Bombay. The last time I spoke to her, she was working for an American company that is outsourcing legal work to India.

WITW: Does she still align herself with the Hindu right?

NP: She still does. It’s something that I don’t really talk to her about much, because it makes me really sad, to be honest. I love her, and I think what she believes in is so destructive, and so counter to everything that I am as a person, so it’s not easy. But one of the things we’re still doing with The World Before Her is we’re [screening it in] different places across the country. One of our ideas is to work with groups that are trying to create unity between Hindus and Muslims. And so we were thinking of taking Prachi with us to some of those screenings, and she’s open to it. That’s the amazing thing about Prachi: she’s open to it.

WITW: You mentioned that members of the fundamentalist camp were very confused when you brought up their contradictory position on women. There is a scene in the film, however, when you discuss this subject with Prachi, and she basically says, “Yeah, I know.”

NP: She’s the only one who kind of got it. When she did actually respond that way, I was shocked. I was expecting her to say the same thing as her dad and the other women in the camp that I interviewed. But she didn’t. And that’s what made me think, “Wow, this woman, she’s really stuck. She really is. And she gets it.” That’s why I feel in some way, there’s hope with her.

Pooja Chopra, ChMiss India 2009, poses for a photo/ Courtesy Nisha Pahuja
Pooja Chopra, Miss India 2009, poses for a photo/ Courtesy Nisha Pahuja

WITW: You are currently working on another documentary called Send Us Your Brother, which focuses on the identity of Indian men. How did this new project come into being?

After the Delhi gang rape in December 2012, I became determined to get The World Before Her in front of Indian audiences. I worked with various activists and NGOS and began a tour of the film across the country, traveling to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Haryana. Our focus was to engage and interact with students and audiences in small cities and villages.

As we traveled with the film, what began to surprise and inspire me was the reaction of young men and boys. In a small, low caste village in Uttar Pradesh, just as we were packing up and getting ready to leave, two boys approached us. We assumed that they would have the same perspective as the older men in the village, who had just finished announcing that women who are raped ask for it by not staying home or dressing a certain way. We were perfectly prepared for a distressing echo of that statement, but what [the boys] said absolutely blew us away. Both boys had been fighting for the rights of their sisters and the other women in the village, and for that, they were facing the wrath of their families. But they refused to be silent. They understood not just that India would never move forward unless women were given the same rights as men, but that equality was a fundamental human right.

As filmmakers, we’re always talking about giving the unheard a voice. In India, often we assume that those are women, and that is not incorrect. But, listening to those boys, especially as I was so ready to dismiss them, made me realize how much men need to be heard.

WITW: What is the significance of the film’s title?

NP: As part of our tour with The World Before Her in India, we targeted areas where female infanticide was still practiced and where the boy-to-girl ratio was significantly skewed. One of the worst places for this is the Punjab. During our travels there, the leader of an NGO told us about a song village women would sing after killing and burying a newborn girl. Often, the method used was choking her on a large chunk of sugar. They would bury the girl, gather around her and sing: “Eat this sugar. Go back to where you came from, never to return. Instead, send us your brother.” That’s where the title comes from. But for me, what’s most poignant is that it’s not just about sacrificing girls. It’s the sacrifice of the boys that take their place, because they’re compelled to fit an idea we’ve constructed: the cramped geography of definition.