The World Before Her
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 it’s 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. The battle I chose to focus on is the battle between tradition and “modernity,” fundamentalism and capitalism and how this 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 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 1992, when it allowed foreign corporations and satellite T.V to infiltrate its shores, it has changed in dramatic ways. To say these 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 this film that India is at a very interesting crossroads and more and more, women are demanding to be heard. Sadly, just as they are staking their claim in this new country, so the violence and oppression against them continue to mount. As history has shown repeatedly however, freedom has to be fought for and so, women are fighting.
When Ed Barreveld and I embarked on 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—Pooja and Prachi. After I met them I knew we had to try to do justice to the complexity of their lives.
Through Pooja I understood what the pageant really meant in a country like India. For many girls it was beyond fame and money, it was freedom—freedom from the narrow geography of being a woman. And yet I had to ask, were these girls really free, or were they simply trading in one set of shackles for another? I still don’t know the answer—but I do know that the contestants, like Prachi and the other Durgas, are products of a particular time in their 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 until Prachi told me about the Durga Vahini camps. I knew if I could get access to one we’d have a film that looked at two conflicting visions of India and Indian women being made.
Getting inside the camp took nearly two years. They had never before given a camera crew access. Somehow through luck and chance and 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, 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 who flirted shamelessly with both Mrinal my cameraman AND Anita my sound woman.
When editor Dave Kazala and I went through Prachi’s interviews we often had to take breaks—sometimes it was because we had no clue what she was saying, but often it was what she said. Prachi spewed such venom and was 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 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 girls she was suddenly whisked off to hair and make up, 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 and I said goodbye to characters and storylines we felt sure we couldn’t do without. All films have their challenges. This one was fraught with them. I know for myself, Cornelia, Dave and Sean, The World Before Her was the toughest film we’ve made. I also know that because of them, Mrinal and Prachi it has been the most worthwhile.
A special note of thanks to three key people--Executive Producer Andy Cohen without whose financial support we would not have been able to film the Durga Vahini camp and other key scenes in the film; my dear friend Richard Wake-Walker whose infusion of cash came at just the right moment; and my mother who for some reason known only to her, continues to stand by my choices even when they mean supporting me through the lean years. Without them, we could not have made this film.
The World Before Her
In November 2009 director (and writer/producer) Nisha Pahuja and I had the pleasure to be amongst a small group of projects invited to pitch The World Before Her at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA)’s the FORUM. .
The pitch was the film’s debut in the broadcast world and we had 15 minutes to make a good impression in the time granted to us. We already had a killer teaser clip but hitting the right tone for the pitch was important. I’ve sat in pitches before but after our trailer played there was electricity in the air. When Nisha finished the pitch, I, and most of the 300 people in the room, had goosebumps. The following day Playback Daily ran an article with the headline “Barreveld behind beauty queen doc” (surely a career highlight…) and I’m quoted “The film will be made – whatever money is raised”. Prophetic words…
We have financed ambitious projects before but The World Before Her was a particular challenge. At the FORUM we came to the table with the support of German broadcaster ZDF. Following our IDFA pitch we had many discussions with financiers and eventually we garnered the support of UK’s Channel 4, Cinereach, the Gucci-Tribeca Fund and, with help from our UK producer friend Mike Chamberlain, money from CBA/DFID Program Development Fund (Worldview).
Our major challenge was finding money at home. Where Canada once was a hothouse of documentary production and typically we could count on the support of a broadcast licence and Canadian Media Fund money - usually making up somewhere between 25 and 40% of a budget - with the consolidation of broadcasters, the advent of cheap reality television, focus on series and TV’s loss of appetite for one off documentaries, this was a new playing field.
The easiest thing would have been to walk away from the film but we had already sunk a lot of money in the film - not all of it ours either - and I believed in the film and the passion and intelligence Nisha brought to it. So in a very haphazard way we managed to cobble enough money together, including small broadcast licences out of Canada and a generous grant from Rogers Documentary Fund, to film the 2011 pageant.
In between the time we pitched in Amsterdam and when we got into production, Nisha visited India several times to maintain contact with the organizers of the pageant but also to dig deeper into the Hindu nationalist movement. To gain the trust of the latter, she spent significant time meeting leaders and foot soldiers and it was thus she came across Prachi, for me one of the film’s most compelling characters. Finding a young female fundamentalist allowed us to shift the focus of the storyline to an all female cast of characters living in the same space but, essentially, in parallel universes. It was Prachi who told Nisha about the Durga Vahini camp and helped broker access. It was the first time ever that a film crew was allowed to film the training camp.
During production, Nisha, DOP Derek Rogers and sound recordist Jason Milligan spent 6 weeks following the “beauty boot camp” leading up to the pageant while producer Cornelia Principe and I continued our fund raising efforts. Eventually we landed support from Impact Partners, the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Film Fund and Telefilm/Rogers Group of Funds Feature Film Program.
Our other challenge was editing the film. Nisha, editor Dave Kazala and assistant editor Sean Kang spent 8 months in Storyline’s (comfortable) basement sifting through hours of footage to craft the film. What emerged is an observational film that allows us a window into two very different worlds, filled with conflict, contradictions and rich characters. Without passing judgement, Nisha managed to give voice to young women finding their place in a country undergoing massive change. What struck me most is that though the background and ideals of the two camps are so different, at the end of the day everyone wants the same; freedom to lead their lives they want to live.
The film is peppered with great characters; I’ve already mentioned Prachi, the young fundamentalist, who, trying to balance a very complex life filled with contradictions, is one of my favourite characters, but the pageant also follows beauty contestants Ruhi and Ankita who put a fresh perspective on the universal dreams and desires for self determination. Each time I watch the film, I’m particularly touched by the lovely relationship between Ruhi and her supportive parents. As the father of a young daughter, I can only hope that I have a similar relationship with my girl when she is grown up.
This film came together with a lot of special support and I would like to thank the following people for their contributions: Kathrin Brinkman, Sabine Bubeck-Paaz, Mike Chamberlain, Dan Cogan, Andy Cohen ,Hans-Robert Eisenhauer, Martin Harbury, Ryan Harrington, Tabitha Jackson, Adella Ladjevardi, Anna Miralis, Robin Mirsky, Marguerite Pigott , Jenny Raskin, Robin Smith and Richard Wake-Walker,
I would also like to thank the Miss India beauty pageant team, contestants and the Durga Vahini for trusting us and giving us a window into their world. Storyline’s editing team of Dave Kazala and Sean Kang combed through 100s of hours of footage, mostly in Hindi and did so with good cheer. Shasha Nakhai, and Lisa Valencia-Svensson provided excellent support and a special thanks goes out to producer Cornelia Principe, who, no matter what crisis emerged – and this film had more than its fair share - was unflappable. And a very special thanks and nod of respect to Nisha for her determination, passion and humanity in creating a moving portrait of a country and a people in transition.