Canada, Germany, India, INTERVIEWS, NEWS — 06/08/2012 3:32 PM

Nisha Pahuja (Canada / India): “making documentaries allows to explore ideas, complex lived realities and experiences”

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Nisha Pahuja won Documentary Award at this year Tribeca Festival with her new doc “the world before her”. In this exclusive interview to ADN, she speaks about her work of director and producer.

Could you introduce yourself ?

I am a doc filmmaker based in Toronto and  Bombay. I was born in New Delhi and moved to Canada as a child. I studied English Literature with the intention of one day becoming a writer.

My first doc gig was as a researcher looking for young, South Asian Canadians going the arranged marriage route–that was 16 years ago and probably one of the best things that happened to me.  Since then I’ve made three films—”Bollywood Bound”; “Diamond Road” (3 part series) and “The World Before Her”. 

The three films I have made were either about India or had a storyline that took me to India.

When and what was your first doc ? Why are you interested in documentary industry?

My first doc was “Bollywood Bound” (Film page on IMDb) and it told the story of young South Asian Canadians who return to India to become film stars. 

I love making documentaries because it’s a form that allows one to explore ideas, complex lived realities and experiences in a way that can be both creative and profound.  I personally am drawn to making films that are driven by people—for me there is no better way to communicate ideas than through intimate portraits of people.

Are you more director or producer ? What do you prefer to do ?

I am more of a director than a producer though on this project I did also co-produce.  I prefer being a director without a doubt.  It is far more enjoyable to spend money than to raise it !

Can you speak about your last doc film “The world before her” ? 

“The World Before Her” went through a number of incarnations for many reasons (too complex to get into here) before it became what it ultimately is—a film about two different ideas of India playing themselves out on the bodies of women.  I filmed girls going through the Miss India Beauty pageant and I filmed girls who were training to be Hindu nationalists at a camp run by the Durga Vahini—a woman’s wing of the extreme Hindu movement.

Why such a title ?

The title has a number of different meanings—it is about the world that women inhabited in the past, the world as it stretches out before them –theirs for the taking; and it is also about the world before India—India is always referred to as a woman so it is also about the future of the country.  The title as it appears in the film also takes on another layer of meaning once we get to the end of the film.

How did you found the story ? How did you found the main characters ?

I found the story as all doc filmmakers find their stories—research, time, observation and then a desire to understand a subject in a more meaningful way. I found my characters over a few years—Pooja (the Miss India 2009 winner) and Prachi (one of the Hindu Nationalist Leaders) I met on my first research trip to India.  The girls I filmed with in the 2011 pageant I found during production.

Did you had trouble to shoot in India ?

I can’t imagine making a film where I don’t have trouble shooting in India!  There is always the unpredictable element and that is a defining feature of documentaries.  This element is multiplied in India.  I lost my sense of humour on this film which is a shame as it would have come in handy on many occasions when dealing with customs officials, overwrought beauty queens and the Hindu right.

What do you keep from this experience ?

This has been the toughest film I have made for a number of reasons. However, it is for those same reasons that it has also been the most valuable. The most interesting thing for me was filming and becoming friends with many of the girls at the Durga Vahini camp. The fundamentalists by far were the greatest revelation. Prachi is an extraordinary young woman and I often wonder what life would have been like for her had she grown up in a more liberal home or with a less complex father. But in the end, I was very fond of her entire family, including her father who is as much a product of patriarchy as is his daughter.

No matter who seems to be in power, constructs, by their very nature define us, and as such, they limit our freedom.

How long did you shoot and edit ?

I shot over 3 years mostly with a local crew—Mrinal Desai (DOP) and Anita Kushwaha (sound) and then I shot another large chunk of the film with a Canadian crew Derek Rogers (DOP) Jason Milligan (sound). My editor Dave Kazala and our associate editor Sean Kang were in edit for 8 months In total, the film took just about 4 years to make.

What was he budget of the film ? How did you financed it ? Did you have Indian partners ?

The total budget was around 700,000 US$. We financed it through a number of partners.  ZDF/Arte; Impact Partners; Knowledge Network; TV Ontario; Hot Docs Canwest Media Fund; Rogers funds; Telefilm; The OMDC; Superchannel; DFID; Gucci Tribeca Fund and Cinereach. Also, personal friends Andy Cohen and Richard Wake Walker helped with the shortfall.

How did you get the support from German ZDF ?

Eventually I approached ZDF in Germany. They had commissioned my last film which was a three part series on the global diamond trade. They agreed to come in on this which was really what triggered it all for us. With ZDF we were invited to pitch the film at the Forum at IDFA. We got a very good response which triggered Channel 4 money, and money from two funds–Gucci/Tribeca and Cinereach–both funds in the US.

Is it only for theater or did you edit a TV version ?

There is also a one hour tv version of the film

Do you have some TV broadcasting in the pipe? if yes, in which countries ? Will you broadcast the doc in India ?

Right now our main tv commitments are in CanadaIt will be shown in India but we are still deciding the route for that.  We have been fortunate in that there has been a lot of interest in the film so we are weighing our options.

The film won several international awards (Tribeca, Hot Docs …) and have been selected in many festival. How do you explain such a success ? What is the biggest impact of these awards ? 

The film has won two major awards so far and the press has generally been very good.  It is wonderful really to be able to celebrate the success of the film. For all of us who worked on this film it really has been the hardest one to deal with on many levels, not least of which had to do with being under-funded for the first three years.  I think the success of the film has to do with the gestation period.  When you work on something for four years and you shoot for so long, you really get to know people and they open up to you and your crew in deeply personal ways.

Every film is about the team working together—the characters in the film felt comfortable with us and we with them which is why there is so much intimacy.

The other reason is my editor Dave Kazala On this project Dave and I spent the first 4 or 5 months watching footage, talking about the ideas and coming up with an initial structure.  Dave did not cut a thing until we had decided what we were going to say.  It made Cornelia and Ed (producers) sweat a lot but hats off to them,  they let us work in the way we knew we needed to.  Each film has its own inherent logic in terms of process and what it ultimately needs to be.  This was something that became very clear on “The World Before Her” because it was, on some levels, different from what I had initially envisioned.

But all of us knew we had something which could be very moving and affecting if we were given the time and space we needed to do it right—which we were.

I still marvel at how seamlessly Dave put this story together—so much of its power has to do with him.

Undoubtedly success does create opportunities so yes, hopefully this will mean the next film will get financed faster!

How do you explain the growing success of documentaries about Asia in the international film and doc festivals ?

I think the success of films about Asia has to do with the shifting geo-political landscape and the fact that these societies are also undergoing their own growing pains and transitions.  Both these trends are forcing us really to look at the world through a different lens.  I know that for myself that was always important with this film—this idea that India now is a mirror that shows the world back to itself.  Perhaps people are opening up to that idea as opposed to seeing these societies simply as exotic or “other,” which has been the long-standing traditional view.

For your last film, you had major partners such as Tribeca, Rogers, Arte or ZDF. Does it show the strong interest from western broadcasters for Asian stories ?

Yes, absolutely, again for the reasons cited earlier.

You live in Canada. Do you think it’s important to be outside India to be able to show the reality of India Today ?

In part yes, it certainly helps to be an outsider looking in, but as documentary filmmakers I think all of us are observers by our very nature—so all of us share that outsider perspective.

Do you have a new doc project in or about India and / or Asia ?

Yes, am developing a few projects both have to do with Asia.

In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries or docs about Asia which impressed you? If so, which one?

“Last Train Home” by Lixin Fan was a wonderful film for many reasons—intimate and epic. I also loved how music was used so sparingly.  There’s a lesson in that for sure.  And I also was very moved by “Nero’s Guests”, a film by Deepa Bhatia about farmer suicides in India and P Sainath the journalist who has made it his life’s mission to write about the problem and advocate for change.

Interview by mail on 7 June 2012


.  The World Before Her (2012, USA – UK)

Nisha Pahuja Documentary Wins Honors at Tribeca

4 films about Asia among the Hot Docs 2012 Award Winners

. A doc about India among the top winners of 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

3 asian Hot Docs to watch (Now Toronto)

. Tribeca Festival 2012 World Documentary Competition includes 3 films from or about Asia


. “Indian-Origin Filmmaker’s Documentary Wins at Tribeca” (, 27/04/2012)

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