Two years ago, Canandian-Indian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja visited Mumbai for research on her film The World Before Her. Pahuja decided that this, her third film, would follow the lives of beauty pageant contestants vying for the Miss India crown. She speculated that there would be chaotic dressing rooms, perfect bikini bodies and crash diets. But that wasn't all.
“I also wanted to look at the other side which included feminist groups that opposed such pageants,” says Pahuja.
What she hadn't prepared for was a finding a Hindu fundamentalist organisation that also opposed the pageant because of the “blatant westernisation and its impact on young Indian girls”.
“The film is not about the pageant, it's about the duality in the country. It looks at how women are used in both worlds," says Pahuja. The director found the two faces of India in Ruhi, a contestant preparing for the beauty pageant in Mumbai and Prachi, a teacher at a boot camp organised by Durga Vahini, the women's wing of the VHP in Aurangabad.
“As a documentary filmmaker, there are personalities that one is essentially drawn to in a crowd because they are honest and let you into their lives,” says Pahuja, speaking about how she chose the leads in the film. She adds, “They also have supportive families and are able to get audiences to connect with them.”
While the big-budget Miss India pageant creates top models and actresses in Bollywood, Durga Vahini conducts their “cultural” camp for adolescent girls to fuel the political game.
Ironically, both organisations presented their underbellies to the director. “Initially the pageant organisers were thrilled to let us in, but our crew was stopped when the young girls were given the option to use botox injections. Similarly, the fundamentalist group kept us out of sessions where the girls were fed paranoia about Christians and Muslims,” explains Pahuja.
The director plans to travel with the film through India at the end of the year. She is teaming up with NGOs working with women's issues to screen the film. Is she worried about a possible backlash? “The film is apolitical. But in India, anything is possible,” she laughs.