Contrasting the aspiring Miss India contestants and the women’s wing of the militant fundamentalist movement, Durgha Vahini The World Before Her relies on Pahuja’s ability to develop relationships with subjects from diverse spheres of modern Indian society. While the director states she didn’t have the access she wanted to the pageant, “It was easy for them to say yes,” she says. “They agreed to be filmed, but in terms of the actual process – where you follow a character through a journey and you experience that world through her – that we didn’t get,” and with her access to the camp curtailed, Pahuja was still able to present a detailed look at both worlds and those who inhabit them.
“The one thing I realised early on was that if I was going to get access to the world of the fundamentalists – real access where they would reveal themselves to me – I would have to spend time in India and they would have to trust me,” Pahuja explains from Mumbai via Skype. “I couldn’t do that being in Toronto. So I started to come and spend months and months here; researching and meeting people and spending time with them without turning the cameras on. I spent over a year with Prachi just getting to know her before I even started broaching the idea of filming with her. I spent a lot of time just making inroads and meeting people at various levels of the movement — to get the kind of access [I needed], the comfort and intimacy.”
Camp leader, Prachi who acts as our guide to the previously closed world of the Durgha Vahini Camp, allows Pahuja to accompany her to her home, meet her parents and view the expectations she herself faces on a personal level. Similarly, the director interviews a former Miss India’s mother who retells her own experience with her husband who refused to accept she gave birth to a girl. Both experiences help to shed light on the nuances of oppression facing many women in India.
I ask Pahuja about securing this extremely intimate access. “Indians are generally very open,” she admits. “They love to talk, they’re hospitable and so they feel in some ways they should be telling you these things, they sort of go out of their way. It really does help being a person who speaks their language and who has the same cultural background because there is a particular short hand and an ease that develops. It’s a privileged position because you’re an insider and also an outsider. I’m not sure if they would have given access to the camp to somebody who wasn’t an Indian. I don’t think they would have given access if I wasn’t working with a Hindu Indian crew.”
Both worlds presented their own frustrations for the filmmaker. “I think where I was really upset as a woman was in the fundamentalist camp and some of the scenes with Prachi and her father,” the director reflects. “With the beauty pageant, I probably didn’t feel as much rage. I often felt shocked. The use of botox I found very disturbing and when they parade around with sheets on their heads. At the moment I remember feeling so many things, sadness, that was the big one for me, and shock that they didn’t realise how dehumanising it was. Other than Ankita, they just went along with it. The girls didn’t protest. I felt a lot of things during that scene.”
Was it a personal film for you? “All films are personal,” Pahuja responds. “They are all about something that you are trying to understand as a filmmaker and as a human being. They all become about something that you’re trying to understand about the world. You put a lot of yourself in them. With this one maybe because I’m a woman, and a woman from that culture, and I’ve seen what my mother has had to go through in life. These struggles and issues are perhaps closer.”
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