The Ideal Woman: The Making of The World Before Her

Trevor Hogg chats with filmmaker Nisha Pahuja as well as producers Ed Barreveld and Cornelia Principe about the tremendous effort required to bring The World Before Her to the big screen… 

“I’ve always been interested in international stories,” explains Producer Ed Barreveld as to how he became involved with The World Before Her (2012).  “In 1997 when I was working as a line producer on a documentary, I visited India and somehow was quite affected by that visit.  It’s such a beautiful country with an old culture, rich stories, contradictions and a global power on the move. When director Nisha Pahuja who is Indian/Canadian and I met in 2008 with an eye on doing a film together, we kicked a few ideas around and we landed on the Miss India beauty pageant.  We thought this would be an interesting way to look at a country in transition.”  A teaser clip and pitch was presented to the IDFA’s (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) FORUM.  “Early in 2009 we sent Nisha to India for a research trip and to do a bit of shooting so that we could put a demo together.  Nisha followed the 2009 pageant and spent a lot of time with one of the contestants, Pooja Chopra, who ended up being that year’s winner. Pooja’s back story was incredible; when she was 20 days old, her father demanded that his wife kill Pooja as she was the second daughter and he wanted a son.  Pooja’s mom did something brave and unheard of [in India]; she left her husband saying, ‘This girl will make me proud one day.’ And 23 years later she was in the audience when Pooja was crowned Miss India. In addition to this compelling story, we had some other spectacular footage that juxtaposed the beautiful women in the pageant with violence against women; we carefully scripted our pitch around this.  I distinctly remember the vibe of the room during our pitch.  You could have heard a pin drop; we really surprised people who had expected just another beauty pageant film; there were audible gasps from the audience during some of the scenes.”

Despite the festival reaction to the footage and presentation, the documentary struggled to get the necessary monetary support.  “It took four years to put the financing together,” states Ed Barreveld.  “In addition to the 2009 shoot and after our pitch at the FORUM, Nisha went to India to shoot the 2010 pageant because we thought the financing would come together and we could complete the film.  We did have interest but not sufficient to go into production. The financing didn’t come through and we put things on hiatus again. By late 2010 we had a good chunk of the budget in place and though we knew we were underfinanced, we also knew that with the commitments in place, we couldn’t wait another year as people would lose interest.  We decided that we would go in production with what was in place and continue to fund raise as we were in production.”  The financial concerns remained the biggest challenge for the project.  “We were constantly struggling to raise money to make the film happen,” states Nisha Pahuja.  “I had friends who kicked in portions of the budget when we didn’t have the money to shoot.  Because there was not a lot of money it also meant there were a lot of different things I had to do: production managing, organizing things, [arranging] access, research and writing.”  Barreveld adds, “We had some wonderful initial support; ZDF out of Germany was a very early supporter, Rogers Documentary Fund and the Shaw Media Fund gave us a generous grants but our Canadian license fees were not sufficient to qualify for CMF funding, a reflection of the state of funding of documentary in Canada.  Under normal circumstances Canadian license fees and CMF support would account for 30-40% of the budget making it much easier to raise the remainder.  In our case, with no CMF funds attached, Canadian broadcast support comprised 3% of the budget.  We applied to a lot of foundations and found a US based equity investor; a first for us and them, and this took a lot legal finagling to make this work so we would not fall afoul of Canadian certification rules. In early 2011 we decided to go ahead with what we had raised, which ended up being about 2/3 of the final financing and we constantly chased additional money throughout production.  Even this was a challenge but through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Film Fund, Telefilm’s Theatrical Documentary Fund, supported by our Canadian distributor Kinosmith, and giving up most of Storyline’s fees we were eventually able to meet the budget. We had no cash to go into the field when Nisha left for India and it was only through a last minute development loan from SuperChannel that we were able to make it work.”

A collaborator of Nisha Pahuja’s was recruited.  “With all the time and energy spent on a constantly under financed film, all my productions were suffering and nobody was happy,” reveals Ed Barreveld who was producing eight other documentaries at the time.  “Nisha had worked with Cornelia [Principe] on her previous film and suggested we bring her on board so someone could focus on The World Before Her full-time. We hired Cornelia and from that point on my role shifted to more of an executive producer role and Cornelia dealt with the daily demands of the production.”  Producer Cornelia Principe remembers, “Practically every day there was a crisis of some sort.  Threats to shut us down were ongoing during the shoots; both at the Hindu training camp and at the Pageant Boot camp. Having our sound gear stuck in customs for the entire six week pageant shoot was crazy making. How do you remain calm?  Well, you don’t really!   You keep on going. Having a sense of humour helped [sometimes]. Being persistent and not taking things personally helped [most of the time]. In a way, being here in Canada while Nisha was there helped since I could give Nisha a little perspective and be the calm mind and voice in the storm she was enduring.”  The familiarity between the producer and the filmmaker turned out to be an asset.  “I know Nisha well, and I know her strengths and weaknesses. Being an organized, dependable producer of people and money is important but balancing that with a creative mind is crucial; you need to develop both sides of the brain. Keeping an eye on the big picture and having your heart in the right place.  You are after all making a documentary not widgets – is really important too. You want to be respectful of the people in the film, be true to the larger story and feel on some level like your doing this for a larger purpose. This may sound corny but producing documentaries are hard work with little financial pay off; you have to have a good reason for why you are doing it to do it.” Working with Ed Barreveld proved to be useful.  “Sometimes a male authority on the phone with India does wonders!” Asked about the major problem she had to resolve, Principe laughs, “Too many to list and now that’s its over I want to forget!”

Contacts needed to be developed to get the required interview footage.  “Nisha can be quite charming and on her first trip in 2009 she met with the Miss India organizers and convinced them to allow us to film that year’s pageant,” states Ed Barreveld.  “It was relatively easy.  Nisha frequently travels back and forth between Canada and India so after we knew we didn’t have enough money to proceed with production, she would check in with the pageant people on a regular basis. We filmed the 2010 pageant the pageant’s organizers became use to her being around.  In 2011, when we proceeded with full production, the ownership of the pageant had changed and all of the sudden it appeared that we would not be allowed to film.  We had to engage legal counsel to help re-negotiate access; basically our line was that we had been dealing with them in good faith and that we had an agreement.  By that time we had spent well over $100,000 on the film, most of it with money borrowed from angel investors.  It took some time; I think management was a little spooked by the new ownership, a massive media entity, and were being extra careful about the optics of the pageant.  In the end we worked out a deal.  We were allowed to film the pageant but before locking picture would show them the scenes of the pageant and allow them to comment on these.  We made sure that they did not have approvals. When the time came, as per our agreement, we only showed them the pageant footage and carefully considered their comments which ended up being pretty innocuous.  As part of the deal we also granted them broadcast rights in India for one year from first broadcast.  One of the advantages of having to wait so long to go into production, possibly the one and only advantage, was that in the meantime Nisha had established a relationship with one of the foot soldiers of the Hindu fundamentalist movement [who went on to become a political leader].  By this time we had already decided that in order for the film to be effective we needed to show two sides of India; the modern side as represented by the women in the pageant and the fundamentalist side, represented by the Hindu fundamentalists’ nationalist agenda.”

“We had already spent over a year filming with our fundamentalist contact,” recalls Ed Barreveld.   “He was to be our main character, when Nisha learned of the Durga Vahini and their training camps.  This is how she met Prachi [Trivedi].  It was a no-brainer to focus on Prachi; it made so much more sense that if we were going to be telling a story about women in India, that it would be more effective if we could focus on women on both sides of the spectrum.  Prachi is documentary gold.  She’s actually my favourite character in the film because she is so passionate, dedicated and conflicted.  We could have done a film on her alone! Someone like her would probably do very well in the West but in her very traditional family she’s constantly walking a fine line.  What we call the beauty boot camp of the pageant, and the Durga Vahini camp were natural opposites and a perfect way to tell our story.  The equal screen time was necessary to help build the story; weaving the lead up to the final day of the pageant and the lead up to the girl’s graduation in the camp demanded equal time in the edit.  It was quite a challenge but our editor Dave Kazala managed to create a balance and give everyone a voice.”  Nisha Pahuja remarks, “The film felt more anthropological when I was first thinking about it.   Once I met Pooja and Prachi it completely changed.  It became much more personal.”  The two young women provided a key element to the project.   “For me it’s always about character and story.  I knew when I found Prachi and Pooja that I had great characters and that is half the battle.”  The premise was a simple one.  “We wanted to start off with showing that these two worlds were opposite and as we get deeper into it you begin to realize they’re not that opposite. There are a lot of similarities and the key similarity is these are women who are being shaped to fit someone else’s ideal.”  Barreveld notes, “I agree but what’s interesting is that the girls are aware of this.  Prachi directly addresses this at the end of the film but Ruhi [Singh] and Ankita [Shorey], two of the pageant contestants also articulate this quite clearly.  In their own way, they each try to plot a course through societal expectations and weigh what price they are willing to pay to achieve their goals.”

“I always knew that I was not going to have narration,” states Nisha Pahuja who intercuts title cards and archival news images with her own documentary footage.  “Initially, where we were going to have a third perspective where we would have the feminist perspective that would put those two extremes into a certain kind of context, and maybe comment on those two extremes and show another side of India and Indian women.”  The feminist perspective was removed.  “Once we started cutting it became a problem because, ‘Oh, God we have yet another kind of extreme.’  It was an interesting voice but we would have to lose some of the powerful moments in the other two worlds which we didn’t want to do.  It was actually in the edit that we decided to look at these two ideas of India.  It made sense to me because I was always trying to make a film looking at this country going through extreme cultural, social, political, and economic changes; and how women were being used to create these two different kinds of India and how they were also shaping the country.”  There are two particular moments that stand out to Cornelia Principe.  “The first time I saw the women on the beach in short shorts with white sheets covering their heads and torsos, I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. I had never seen anything so strange, crazy and sad. And the fact that the women for the most part didn’t see what we in the West so clearly saw in the situation was astounding and eye opening for me.  Second one was in the edit when Nisha showed me the clip of Prachi talking about her father and how ‘he let her live’ and how ‘that was the best part, he let me live.’  I burst out crying. I was so saddened and moved by the fundamental lack of self-worth in this seemingly strong and capable woman. I felt this could explain not just Prachi’s behavior as a fundamentalist but many women’s inexplicable behavior like staying with an abusive partner for example.”

“Prachi’s constant struggle about who she is, what she is and how she navigates her relationship with her parents, who are both involved in the Hindu movement, is fascinating,” believes Ed Barreveld.  “By Western standards we shudder at the way she was raised and how she was shaped by this.  On the one hand I admire her passion and dedication but it’s clear that she’s brainwashed by her upbringing and the whole fundamentalist concept.  This is of course not unique to Hindu fundamentalism but any fundamentalism, be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim which are essentially patriarchal and misogynistic control systems.  It’s interesting to get a fly on the wall perspective in her world that’s so full of contradiction.  Late in life, I became the father of a daughter.  It was a little bit through this lens that I observe Prachi and Ruhi.  Prachi’s relationship with her father is heartbreaking and provides the empathy you need to feel for her.  Ruhi’s parents on the other hand understand that in order for her to succeed, she needs to break from the bonds of traditional Indian society and they support her to the best of their ability.  My daughter is five now and I can only hope that when she’s a young woman, my relationship with her will be like Ruhi’s and her father.  He is so proud of her and supportive.  She obviously loves him so much and it’s just a lovely relationship; the same for her mother who understands that ‘Jaipur is no place for a girl like Ruhi.’ They’re terrific parents.”  A heartbreaking scene occurs when Ruhi’s mother learns while watching the television broadcast of the pageant that her daughter’s ambition of being crowned Miss India has not materialized. “As a film crew you’re finding that balance between respecting people and giving them their space, and making sure you get what you need to tell your story well,” states Nisha Pahuja.  “When you see the close-up shot of her face and the tears shedding, that’s a powerful moment and you know that is kind of stuff needed to tell the story.”  Pahuja became emotionally entwined with the documentary where she is occasionally heard asking an interview question off-camera. “The film became personal for me and so I felt sometimes that I wanted my voice to be in it.  It felt right.”

“When we were shooting nothing went the way it was supposed to; nothing ever does when you’re doing a documentary,” observes Nisha Pahuja.   “In both worlds access was denied us for different reasons; that was a problem.  So you are thinking, ‘God, what are we getting?  What are we going to end up with?’  At some point I would say filming the pageant I started to realize that regardless of the fact that we didn’t have the kind of access we wanted we were still going to have strong material. With your footage you think, ‘Oh, God it’s going to be great.  Oh, God it’s going to be awful.’  That is the sort of tug of war which takes place.  We all felt that we had something strong but we needed the time to craft it.”  During the post-production, a member of the film crew played a significant role in assembling the footage into a coherent narrative and appropriate running time.  “It’s hard to describe exactly what Dave Kazala brought to this film.  Filmmaking is a collaborative medium and when you work with someone like Dave, or Cornelia Principe for that matter, you have real partners who help you fight the battle.  With this particular film because it was driven primarily by ideas and not story, as was the original plan; it needed someone who could take those ideas and have them develop, shift and reveal things about each world.  We feel as if we are moving forward in the film and we are not because of story but the way Dave moved the ideas forward through his editing.  A lot of people comment on the fluidity of the storytelling, or they describe it as though they are watching a piece of music…that’s Dave; he takes ideas that are complex and layered and sometimes he shows you things that you yourself didn’t see and he puts them all together seamlessly.”

Globalization is rapidly changing the world, states Ed Barreveld.  “That and the emergence of India as a world power player are changing Indian society.  Young women realize that they can and should play a role in how the country develops. It is now legislated that Parliament and state legislative bodies have 33% female representation. And of course there have been strong women such as Indira Ghandi who was the world’s longest serving prime minister. But generally women are still undervalued; an international survey puts India fourth in the world as the most dangerous place for women.  Female feticide and infanticide are still very much a reality.  I’m hopeful with a stable economy, if democracy persists and the Hindu fundamentalists don’t gain the same foothold as their Muslim counterparts in most of the Arab world, that eventually things will get better for women.  Let’s not just point the finger at India and the Muslim world; we in the West still have a long way to go as well, as evidenced by the recent campaigning in the US.”  Cornelia Principe agrees with her male colleague.  “I’m still working on how women are evolving in my country! In fact, I’m in pre-production right now on a doc for CBC on working mothers called The Motherload.”  As for Nisha Pahuja, she believes,   “We can’t think that people don’t fight.  People always fight.  They fight for change.  People are fighters whether you’re fighting against racism and poverty.  They fight for their rights and always have.  It’s the same in India.  There is a strong feminist movement that across the board.   It’s in the villages, cities and the country; it’s national and that sort of momentum will continue.  There is a growing backlash. There is more violence against them.  There is more rape and crime.  There were a couple of things that happened recently. The villages are run by things called panchayats which are village councils.  In one part of India in the Punjab, the panchayats are trying to pass a resolution where the legal age girls can be married goes from 18 to 16; they feel that will stop rapists and gang rapes.  That is one ridiculous thing.  The other thing is that they are trying to stop teenage girls from having cellphones.  The more women who are fighting for change the more of these measures are trying to restrict them.  It will change.  It has to change.”

“It’s a difficult time for documentary right now; particularly in Canada where we’ve relied on television licenses to finance our films and a private culture of film financing and risk taking like in the US doesn’t exist,” states Ed Barreveld.  “The recent rule changes at the Canadian Media Fund driven by the cable industry, and this is my personal conspiracy theory the conservative government, are in my opinion anti-documentary. The advent of reality television, the push for new media and the consolidation of broadcasters and the need to keep shareholders happy and eyeballs on their channels, resulted in a general dumbing down of programming. Documentary for them only works if it’s entertaining.  Of course, a good documentary needs to be entertaining, my company is called Storyline Entertainment so we’re very aware of this, but it should also inform, educate and make people think. I’d like to think our films do all of these things. Most of the interesting stuff now happens on cable and it’s predominantly drama.  When I watch TV, it’s hard to distinguish the CBC from Global or CTV.  TV hours are now 39 or 44 minutes encouraging people to channel surf during commercials – a lot of TV feels like product.  Even the National Film Board, arguably the inventor of documentary, is putting more money in their obsession with new media.  The irony is that documentary audiences at festivals continue to grow.  Look at festivals like IDFA and Hot Docs where there are line ups outside the theatres and tickets sell out in advance. Hot Docs sees their audience increase each year.  During the night of hurricane Sandy I attended a screening of The World Before Her in Oakville.  Despite the weather, some 400 people were in the audience and most stayed for the Q&A afterwards; they loved the film and were totally engaged. But in the long term, unless there are drastic changes, documentaries will only be made by people who can afford to do so, or artists who strictly work within the arts council system.  I see many of my colleagues, some extraordinary talented people, leaving the business.  We’ve had some fantastic successes in the past year but we never know from day to day whether we’ll still be in business a month from now.”

Cornelia Principe concurs with Barreveld about the troubled future for documentaries.  “I fear feature and one-off documentary production is a dying ‘art’ and ‘business’; I use quotes because it is essentially both. Fewer and fewer filmmakers will be making films; there will be the few that command Oscars and HBO pre-licenses, and then there will be the young first-time filmmakers who will make a documentary on their own dime while living in their parents’ basement. Those in between, like myself and most of those I work with and know, there are less and less of even today from 10 years ago, and I see no reason, sadly, that this trend will not continue.” Despite all of these obstacles The World Before Her has thrived on the international film festival circuit winning Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca as well as receiving awards at Hot Docs, Edmonton and Traverse City.  “I have certainly flirted with the idea,” admits Nisha Pahuja when questioned as to whether she would leave making documentaries for scripted dramas.  “It would be interesting but I don’t think so.  Documentaries are hard to make; there is something about them that is so vital and engaging because you’re dealing with real people and stories.”

Many thanks to Nisha Pahuja, Ed Barreveld and Cornelia Principe for taking the time to be interviewed.

To learn more make sure to visit the official website for The World Before Her and read our movie review here.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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