Filmmaker Interview

POV: Being a girl in India today is quite difficult given the cultural, political and economic situation. Tell us a little bit about the film, particularly for those who have not seen it.

Nisha Pahuja: Well, the film basically looks at two different groups of women in India. It really looks at two different extremes actually so on the one hand we have 20 young contestants who are aspiring to become the next Miss India, and then on the other hand you have young girls who are training to become Hindu nationalists essentially. And the idea behind the film really was to sort of look at how women's bodies were being used to create two competing ideas of Indian identity and nationalism so that's really you know in a nutshell, that's kind of what the film is about.

POV: And why did you feel it was important to juxtapose these two extremes?

Nisha Pahuja: Initially the film was really just going to look at the Miss India, the pageant and it was really going to look at, use the pageant as a way to explore sort of larger cultural, economic changes that were taking place in the country and also the changing role of women, you know in the country. Initially that was the idea. And then once I started to read about the opposition to the contest and once I began to meet the fundamentalists, especially Prachi who figures so prominently in the film, once I met her and she told me about these camps, I thought you know if I could get access to the camp then I could really have these you know some of the conflicts that women sort of deal with, I could actually sort of highlight both of them.

POV: It seems pretty clear that the role of the Indian woman today is evolving. And I kept on thinking when I watch the film, it's like in between these two camps there's a whole world of women, more and more becoming educated, part of the business sector, et cetera. Is there anything that you can tell us about sort of the women's rights movement in India?

Nisha Pahuja: In terms of the film I really sort of look at two extremes, but there are obviously very powerful women in India and there are more and more women entering the workforce at different levels so things are definitely changing and a lot of it has to do actually with the women's rights movement in India which actually goes back to independence movements that's when women started to be sort of to find a political voice. And the constitution of India actually guaranteed women equality and the same rights, the same rights as men. So those things are enshrined in the constitution.

So they've made incredible strides actually and in terms of political representation of women in village councils which is you know where, there's a lot of oppression in villages so you see things changing there, in terms of education, in terms of health, so it's a massive very powerful movement. But there are also a very frustrated movement because things change so slowly there. And it's incredible the number of women activists that I've met over the years you know who have had their lives threatened who've been beaten you know but still they fight, right, and they don't stop actually. The strength of women in India is quite extraordinary.

POV: The film is really emotionally charged. When Prachi is talking about her father's views and her experience as a young woman, and as a girl child in her family, it is gripping to see that - you know I have to say, I watched the film again last night and I kept on hearing her say - "But he let me live, he let me live. So you need to understand that he let me live." Could you sort of unpack that a little bit, particularly for an American audience what her experience was like and what was your experience as a filmmaker like, sort of being able to document her understanding of her current situation?

Nisha Pahuja: Prachi and I and the crew all became very close over the course of making the film because we knew her for a number of years, you know we filmed over quite a period of time. So in that moment, the context really is that if she talks about her father being physically abusive and he describes some of the abuse that he's kind of put her through, which he recounts almost gleefully without any real kind of regret or remorse or sense of it being wrong which was really shocking and probably very shocking for western audiences. For all audiences, actually. Abusing children is not something that's looked favorably upon anywhere in the world. So in that moment, I'm talking to her about I guess how she feels about the fact that he treats her this way and she says basically that she's just grateful that she was allowed to live, you know? Citing really a large reality in India which is female feticide and infanticide. It's not uncommon for girls to be aborted, for that to happen and also infanticide is also practiced in India. Female infanticide. So she counts herself as one of the lucky ones because she was allowed to live.

It's kind of the fundamental issue in India in terms of women's rights. It's an entire system that actually works against you as a woman. That kind of prejudice is so deeply ingrained, that kind of patriarchy. It's at every single level of the system political, economic, social, cultural, you know so she was battling all of those. And she survived. You know?

POV: I have to say there are a lot of stereotypes about the Indian woman today and I think many westerners might think, "Oh gosh, you know there are honor killings," there are many different things just in terms of the violence against women, as we see Prachi's father, what are your hopes for this film in terms of an American audience? What would you like an American audience to walk away with understanding about your culture and your country?

Nisha Pahuja: I think for me it was a really interesting process, what happened as I was making the film. I changed. I think I had certain ideas and certain perceptions and a lot of anger also towards men and patriarchy and these systems of oppression, you know? And I still have these issues with it, but I think what happened over the course of making the film is that I started to be able to put things into a different context and maybe into sort of a larger context and I started to think that what was really important was to find compassion and was to understand that we have to start looking at time in a different way, you know? Because we're in the west, we've got this perception that everything that is the way it is here - the rights that we have, the democracy that we enjoy - that's right and that should be all over the world. But every society evolves, every society changes slowly, every society goes through a process just like individuals. And so I think that's what for me that's what I would really want people to take away.

POV: In terms of Prachi, she's a very unique person with many contradictions I think. Because she totally wants to be independent and I feel like she's training the next generation but at the same time, you see this puzzling introspection of who she is yet you want to get closer to it and you do an amazing job as a filmmaker to actually show us that process.

Nisha Pahuja: In the film, we caught her at a moment where, quite like her country, she's going through really profound changes. And she's trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be. And there's a world that's kind of open to her and yet it's also closed off and it's creating tremendous internal kind of turmoil and conflict. And she just needed to kind of express herself and I think we were almost sort of therapists for her in some ways. So now she's in a much, much better head space and she's so determined and so strong-willed. And she just finished her law degree. So she's become a lawyer which is great. And she's still not married. Which is also great you know for her. So I think she's much more optimistic and positive about her future.

POV: Now Ruhi, also a remarkable person with such a supportive family. I have to say I loved her dad. Tell us a little bit, again, about what she's doing now.

Nisha Pahuja: Ruhi is like, she's just so obsessed with winning beauty contests you know. I mean I think the idea of winning is so important to her, it's a kind of validation that she's almost desperate for. So she keeps entering these beauty contests and yes, she wins a title here, a title, a title there kind of thing. Sort of small, you know, smaller contests. And she's modeling. I think she's doing fairly well in the modeling world. And she told me, I just saw her recently and she told me that she has signed a small Bollywood film. So you know, fingers crossed.

POV: So it is a step towards real economic sustainability for these young girls.

Nisha Pahuja: Yeah.

POV: Now beauty contests. Do you have any connection? Were you ever in a beauty contest?

Nisha Pahuja: Oh dear god, no. No. No I never was. Yeah, never wanted to be, yeah.

POV: Now in terms of India, how many people would be supportive of a contest? Tell us a little bit about the pageant and maybe its trappings.

Nisha Pahuja: The pageant does actually air, it's quite massive. It's a huge broadcast. I don't know what the figures are in India, but certainly globally over a billion people tune in and watch the contest. So the exposure that these young women get is astronomical. It's amazing how pageants in India have become sort of a viable, respectable option for middle class women. It's extraordinary. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of these women go on to careers in Bollywood. It used to be really looked down upon to become an actress, to expose your skin, to be seen by other men. There, it was sort of frowned upon. And that's really changed actually. It changed after two young women in India, Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai, won Miss World and Miss Universe. When they won those pageants - this was in the '90s, all of a sudden you know every kind of middle class girl was sort of dreaming of becoming the next Miss India. And her parents were, not all of them, but you know were kind of encouraging that dream. So there's a strong kind of opposition to pageants you know which comes from the feminist groups in India and also the Hindu right. But the middle classes definitely have bought into it.

POV: Were there any surprises in making the film - preconceived notions that you had about the culture or the society - that after making the film you were like, it isn't actually like that?

Nisha Pahuja: One was the empathy that I had for the fundamentalists and quite frankly the preference that I had for the fundamentalists over you know the world of Miss India. Though I understand its importance you know in terms of female empowerment and emancipation, I had much more empathy for the fundamentalist world which is a surprise to me.

I think what also really surprised me was how fond I became of Prachi's father. I actually grew to really like him in spite of the horrific things that he has done and the horrific things and the violence that he espouses. So I was surprised that everyone actually was a full human being you know, that's what surprised me.

POV: You do an amazing job at capturing that people are not black and white in terms of emotion or in terms of action, but really the full spectrum of who they are. I have to say there were times, certain scenes where you see Prachi's dad and you see how humble he is as a man. And the same thing with Ruhi's dad, Ruhi's dad is just so mild-mannered but he carries himself with such dignity and pride.

For an American audience that might not know the Hindu fundamentalists on one side and - we're very familiar with pageants on the other side. Where you think the future of Miss India, the real Miss India in terms of what that development is like and what you hope for the future, do you have any thoughts how the future of Miss India should be?

Nisha Pahuja: I think it'll be very similar to the story here. I think women will achieve just as much as we've achieved in the United States and North America and Europe. I think they're definitely sort of headed that direction, but it's going to take a very, very long time. It'll take a very long time because India has complexities that other [countries] don't necessarily have. And I think one of the things that we're really battling with there is the prison, the enslavement has become so total that women are also part of it. Women can't see beyond what's been built around them. That they kind of question themselves and their rights and their rights to have freedom. So that's a very difficult process. And it's definitely an obstacle. But ultimately, yes, they'll achieve just what we have.

POV: Now why did you choose documentary as a profession?

Nisha Pahuja: I wish I knew. My parents keep asking me that same question, like, why did you choose this, you know? I think for me it's the fact that you find people like Prachi. It's the fact that you can find real people with these extraordinary stories that through them you can say such large things and you can explore such big ideas. And you can do it through a human being. A human being reveals themselves to you in such a profound kind of way. I think I was just really drawn to that, to the idea of real people, real stories and being able to connect to them.

POV:Who do you want to see the film?

Nisha Pahuja: I really want women to see the film because I think it's really, really important and I think it speaks to a lot of women. But then I think in order for things to change for women, we've got to involve men. So men obviously are a big component of that, of things changing for women.

I really, really want people in India to see the film you know. It's done really well internationally, people have received it really well. And that's really terrific, but I do feel that India is going through this period of reckoning, you know. Of understanding what it is. And I feel in some ways they need to see this, because whenever I have screenings with Indians or I've had a few screenings in India, they're shocked that this stuff goes on. They're surprised. They have no sense that there is this kind of dissention in their, in their backyard. And for me it's important that they actually face this because it is at a moment where it's figuring out what direction it's headed, you know. And what its future is going to be.