Director Nisha Pahuja on The World Before Her

Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja talks about her vision for The World Before Her, which follows two very different women — Ruhi Singh, a Miss India pageant contestant, and Prachi Trivedi, a Hindu nationalist with the Durga Vahini, a nationalist training camp. Released in 2012, the feature-length, Emmy-nominated documentary uncovers some realities of living as a woman in India. With its mainstream launch this summer, Ms. Pahuja screened the film India-wide as part of an intensive, six-month awareness campaign.

Q. Tell us about your ultimate goal for impact — what do you hope to achieve through screening The World Before Her across schools, community centres and villages across India?

A. After the Delhi Gang rape in 2012, I was determined to share the film with audiences in India as widely as possible. I felt that the country was finally admitting to serious issues vis a vis women’s rights, and that a dialogue had at last begun that was not just relegated to a minority, but rather had entered mainstream consciousness. I felt that the film could add to that dialogue and keep the momentum going. All movements need tools, they need fuel to build upon — the film was one such tool.

There are three components to the impact campaign in India; all of them are designed to get various audiences to talk about issues in the film and also to have some kind of impact specifically on female infanticide and feticide. We released the film theatrically in June and ran it for four weeks. It became the most successful doc to release in India — that was in no small part due to the support of Anurag Kashyap.

Starting in mid-October, when I return to India, where I will work with a handful of NGOs to start planning a cross-country tour to areas where female infanticide is still practiced. I will also be going to a number of colleges and universities with a focus on underserved ones. That aspect already began and has been incredibly rewarding because you can feel that you are having an impact on the way people think about an issue. Often times, if you make a film that articulates a particular reality that people are in the midst of — but perhaps not able to articulate — you are able to create a shift in consciousness. I think for me that is one of the key goals of the campaign. More and more, I am beginning to see that the process of change is slow, laborious, and it involves changing the way people see in order to change their behaviour.

Q. What changes have you witnessed after screening the film across India, if any?

A. In terms of the changes I have seen after screening the film a few key themes have emerged — one is the appreciation for the non-judgmental approach taken in the film, which has allowed people to see not just Prachi, but anyone who they feel is “other” as human. Many, many people have talked about how the film forced them to face their own prejudices and to not be judgmental. This is easier said than done, but at least the door opened slightly to another way of seeing.

The second thing which has been really great to witness is how the film has impacted young men. It’s clear to me that in order for women’s equality in India, or anywhere for that matter, men have to become part of the dialogue. I had a lot of young men talk and write about the film forcing them to question their notions of gender, patriarchy and their exalted role in society.

Q. What surprised you most while interviewing women for The World Before Her?

A. What surprised me most about women in The World Before Her is how similar they are — girls in the pageant were sometimes incredibly conservative, and women in the Durga Vahini were sometimes very “feminist.” Prachi, who is the strongest character in the film and the most complex, is so because she really is the strongest “feminist” voice.

Q. Are there are specific examples that stood out to you; what type of behaviour shifts did you witness?

A. Behaviour is not an easy thing to change and takes a great deal of time. One thing I will tell you is that the best experience we’ve had so far with the film was at a special screening where the women from two different worlds met for the first time. That was very powerful. At first they were standoffish and would not even look at each other, but eventually, over the course of a two-hour Q&A session, they actually really grew to like one another and appreciate the others’ perspectives. It was wonderful for everyone who took part because we got to witness first-hand what it means to get people to see beyond their differences and recognize what actually connects them.