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Q & A with Director of “The World Before Her” Shown at the UMass Boston Film Series

Nisha Pahuja in the Campus Center Ballroom at the premiere of The World Before Her, the UMass Boston Film Series kickoff film of the spring semester

Nisha Pahuja in the Campus Center Ballroom at the premiere of “The World Before Her,” the UMass Boston Film Series “kickoff film” of the spring semester





Shortly before the UMass Boston Film Series premiere of “The World Before Her,” Director Nisha Pahuja sat down with The Mass Media to answer questions about her inspiration for the film, the filmmaking process, India’s culture and beauty pageants.


When did you decide to make a film about the Miss India pageant?

It’s a long story. In 1999 I was on a research trip to India. I was there making my first documentary, and I was invited to some function. I was invited to some big party, which was basically a homecoming from a young woman who had just won the Miss World pageant in London, a young Indian woman who’d won, and I don’t know if you know this, but from the early ’90s to 2000, Indian women kept winning all these international beauty pageants.

In 1999, when I was at this party, I was amazed at the euphoria, the fact that it was such a huge celebration, and the fact that people were celebrating a woman winning a beauty contest. I didn’t understand why people were so thrilled about this. It started to kind of remind me of sporting events. That sense of nationalism when your team wins something. I started to see echoes of that.

At that point I started to think, this is a really interesting moment. This says something interesting about the country and the way the country looks at itself – the fact that it’s celebrating this kind of a victory. This says something about the country, and it says something about the way women are changing and the way the role of women is changing in the country. So it was in the back of my head and I thought, one of these days, I’ll revisit this idea.

Why did you decide to make this movie in particular?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t like I set out to make the film that you see. It actually sort of evolved. Initially, I just wanted to make a film about the Miss India contest, and it was almost an anthropological study. I was going to use the pageant to look at a country in transition and the changing role of women within a country undergoing all these changes.

Then I started to read about the opposition to the pageant, and on a research trip I started to meet the fundamentalists who were opposed to the pageant. Once I started to talk to them, I realized it had to be about both those voices. Both of those voices had to have equal weight. Eventually what happened is I realized I was dealing with a film that should look at two different ideas of India, a film that was assessing what the future of the country is going to be.

When you met all these fundamentalists, what was their reaction to you, a woman filmmaker who was interested in the Miss India pageant?

The women in the pageant, the girls and that whole world, they were fine, and I was readily embraced. In terms of the nationalists, I think they found me intriguing and curious. Eventually they grew to trust me, and to maybe even like me. I know Prachi and her family became very fond of me. It was a process.

There are lots of women journalists in India. There are lots of women news reporters. You see them on television. But, given how old I was, given the fact that I wasn’t married, all of those factors sort of played in their heads. And of course the fact that I was from the West. I think they were suspicious and intrigued at the same time.

Is Miss India like Miss America, or is it a bigger deal?

In India, it’s a bigger deal than Miss America is now. Now pageants here are starting to become kind of passé. In India, that’s not the case. In certain parts of India, like Bombay and Delhi, there’s a certain attitude now where people are thinking that it’s not as important as it used to be, but in the smaller cities and across the country, to win Miss India is still a huge, huge deal.

Do people in India just care more about beauty pageants?

Yeah, it’s huge. It’s massive, and it’s huge. It’s all really about economic liberalization.

In the early ’90s, India sort of opened its doors to foreign capital. It started to invite investors in, because it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It needed an infusion of foreign capital, and it needed a big loan from the IMF and the World Bank. They made it a condition: “If you want us to bail you out, you have to open your doors basically to globalization.”

Once that started, quite suddenly, women from India started to win all these international pageants. The women that won were basically used to become the faces of multinational cosmetic giants who wanted to get a foothold in what was an emerging market. There was sort of a collusion between liberalization, globalization and this whole beauty pageant industry.

Because more and more women started to win these pageants on an international platform, it became more and more acceptable for girls to pursue this as a career option. It became a way for a lot of women to make money.

There’s a limit on the number of people who can win an international beauty pageant. Is it like being a model in America, where there are many people who say they’ll do it and don’t make any money?

Every young person’s dream on this planet right now is to be rich and famous, for whatever, whether it’s modelling, whether it’s acting, whether music, whether it’s dance. Look at all the reality show competitions that are broadcast all over the world. It’s not dissimilar at all.

Yes, there’s only going to be a handful that make it, but the aspiration is one that’s shared by millions.

Why protest Miss India?

In India the protests come from two camps, the Hindu fundamentalists and the feminists. The feminists protest the pageant because they feel that these things commodify women, which they do obviously. The fundamentalists protest the pageant because they feel that it is degrading to women and that it is a loss of Hindu Indian culture, that it’s an erosion of culture, and it’s offensive. For them to see a woman in a bikini, what offends them is not the commodification of the body; it’s the idea that a woman should not be seen sexually anywhere outside of her house.

Did you speak to people from both parts of the protest movement?

Yeah, I did, but I ended up dropping the feminists. We filmed with the feminists for quite some time, but in the edit room we decided to drop them, and we made the film just really about these two camps.

Are the fundamentalists more numerous or more effective than the feminists in their protests?

They’re more violent in their protests. The feminists can also become quite violent, but the feminists became less and less violent because they wanted to demarcate themselves from the fundamentalists. They don’t want to be seen using the same tactics, or [like they’re] as bad or as oppressive as the fundamentalists.

The feminists actually haven’t protested the Miss India pageant in quite some time. The fundamentalists continue to every couple of years.

When you say that the fundamentalists are violent in their protests, what have they done that’s violent?

They’ll smash stages. This isn’t just for Miss India; beauty contests happen all over the country. In certain regions where there’s a very strong fundamentalist movement or voice — in those places they’ll go and they’ll beat people up.

Is there any backlash for a woman deciding to enter a beauty contest?

Always. Even if it’s not from her village or neighborhood, it’ll be from her family. Not all women have a hard time getting permission from parents, but some of them do.

It isn’t like if a girl decides to do it she could be killed. It’s not like in Afghanistan or Pakistan. It isn’t that severe. That doesn’t happen, or at least I haven’t heard of it happening in India. There’s stigma attached to it for a lot of women, but I’ve not heard of death threats.

Has the Delhi gang rape incident galvanized the fundamentalist protestors?

Yeah, absolutely. It definitely has, of course. They always use that to their advantage. This is how they think. It’s not manipulative or conscious. This is how they feel; this is how they think. This is their world view. In some ways you can’t even fault them for it.

After the incident, there were a lot of right wing voices that went on record to say that this proves that women should not go out of the house. They should stay at home. There’s no need for them to go out so late. There was one person who said that if she had pleaded for her life, called those men her brothers and said that she was a good Hindu girl, they wouldn’t have raped her. It was absurd.