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Nisha Pahuja is producer, writer and director of the NFB co-production documentary To Kill A Tiger. The director of the Oscar-nominated film learned how to 'event-ize' screenings to get the film to audiences and boost exposure, and to help earn an Academy Award nomination.Mrinal Desai/The Canadian Press

How did the Canadian documentary To Kill a Tiger make it to the Oscars on Sunday night? A righteous subject, told well. Indefatigable passion. And non-stop fundraising.

The story starts about six years before the film’s September, 2022, premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Writer-director Nisha Pahuja, whose work centres on gender equity and justice, realized that the documentary she was making about masculinity in India should instead be about one man: Ranjit, a father who was standing by his 13-year-old daughter after she was raped and beaten by three men in their village in Jharkhand. (The villagers wanted her to keep quiet and marry one of her rapists; Ranjit, a penniless farmer, insisted that the men be arrested and tried.) With the support of the National Film Board, Pahuja, 56, spent three years shooting and another three years editing, because she knew she had something special.

“I’ve made documentaries,” she said on a video call last week. “I know how rare it is to land on a story with a natural beginning, middle and end, that has drama and stakes, and a strong, unexpected, positive outcome that could have global impact. I felt it in the editing room: This can go the distance.” She began telling people, “I’m going to try to get this film nominated for an Academy Award.” Most rolled their eyes. She didn’t care.

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The Canadian release, in late 2022/early 2023, was as successful as it gets here – best Canadian film at TIFF, Canada’s Top Ten, three Canadian Screen Awards, prizes at international film festivals. Everywhere it screened, “we saw the enormous impact it has on viewers,” Suzanne Guèvremont, National Film Board chairperson, says. “The stories, ideas and issues that To Kill a Tiger surfaces resonate all over the world.” Deepa Mehta signed on as an executive producer.

Despite that, the few international distributors who came knocking were “great, but small,” Pahuja says. “I felt they wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I thought the film deserved.”

She started working her contact list. “If I really believe in what I’m doing, it’s not hard to make those calls,” she says. “When people say no, I call the next person.” On Aug. 14 last year, the trade papers announced that Mindy Kaling and Dev Patel had become executive producers. Pahuja raised $300,000 that day.

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Ranjit’s daughter looking out in a field in the documentary To Kill A Tiger. The Oscar-nominated film documents a father's fight for justice after his daughter was raped.NFB

Last October, she released the film in select U.S. theatres. She had no distributor, but she had a compelling story and two burning ambitions – to change the world’s criminal and legal systems, so that they work for violence survivors instead of against them; and to shift the culture on masculinity and male allyship. “Ranjit is a role model who inspires a different way of being a man,” Pahuja says.

She partnered with Geeta Sondhi, who created an impact campaign for the film, bringing in Equality Now, a global women’s rights organization; South Asian SOAR, a U.S. non-profit founded in 2021 to end gender-based violence in the South Asian diaspora; and Sakhi for South Asian Women, a New York-based anti-domestic-violence organization.

She hired a distribution consultant, Annalisa Shoemaker, and an extensive public relations team, including Shelter PR, who attracted coverage from the likes of People, Vanity Fair, Christiane Amanpour and Chelsea Clinton; and the publicist Tiffany Malloy, who targeted support where Pahuja needed it most: the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The people who do the actual nominating.

This year, 167 documentaries were eligible for an Oscar, including features about Jon Batiste and Michael J. Fox, and moving work about Mariupol (Ukraine) and Alzheimer’s disease. The documentary branch narrowed that down to a shortlist of 15, announced Dec. 21. Around 1 p.m. that day, Pahuja’s phone started pinging and didn’t stop. She was “over the moon,” she recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Right, what’s next?’ ”

She blasted out the film’s arrival on the Academy’s screeners site. She organized countless in-person screenings in New York, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris and London. “My first Copenhagen screening, when I was trying to make the shortlist, about 12 people were in the audience,” Pahuja says. “My second Copenhagen screening, after we made the shortlist, was packed.”

She learned how to “event-ize” screenings, by inviting respected documentary filmmakers to participate and express support. She enlisted Sara Dosa, whose Canadian/American documentary Fire of Love scored an Oscar nomination last year. She cold-called Alex Gibney (two Oscar nominations, one win) and asked him to do a Zoom Q&A with her. The most influential screening, at United Talent Agency, was organized by Ted Hope, an awards-magnet U.S. producer who ran Amazon Original Movies from 2015 to 2020.

“Ted sent the screening invite across his ListServe, and that was it,” Pahuja says. “The energy around the film exploded.”

When the shortlist was announced Jan. 23, Pahuja was at the Sundance Film Festival. “I didn’t want to watch the nominations with anyone else,” she says. “If we didn’t make it, I needed to be by myself.” When the film’s name came up, she thought, “Amazing, amazing. I’ll take five minutes to rejoice, I’ll do some press and then I have to raise another $500,000.” She rereleased the film in select theatres Feb. 9.

Pahuja always knew To Kill a Tiger was a tough sell: subtitled, in Hindi, about child rape. “But there was such a profound disconnect between how the market steadily rejected the film – how no one wanted it – and how audiences responded,” she says. “The audience response is extraordinary. There’s always a lineup of people who want to talk to me afterward. People are always in tears. There are always people who need to hug me. People always ask, ‘What can I do, how can I help?’ I have to believe some of the resistance to the film was patriarchal. It’s an issue that makes men uncomfortable.”

At the Academy’s Oscar nominees’ lunch on Feb. 12, Pahuja made a point of connecting with a powerful sisterhood, including America Ferrera, Margot Robbie, Ava DuVernay, Sandra Huller and Lily Gladstone. She also marched up to Netflix head Ted Sarandos and said, “Ted, if you do not buy my film, I am going to phone your wife.”

On Feb. 26, an announcement went out: Priyanka Chopra-Jonas had signed on as executive producer – and Netflix had acquired the worldwide rights. The film lands there March 8, International Women’s Day. (It’s also streaming free on in Canada only.)

Pahuja’s sole regret is that she hasn’t taken time to enjoy her accomplishment: “I worry I’m not appreciating the moment or being fully present for the experience, because there’s always something else to do.” Then in the next breath, she says, whatever happens on Oscars night, “our work continues.”

Next up: preparing Ranjit to walk the red carpet with her. “He doesn’t really know what the Oscars are, but he knows it’s a big deal,” Pahuja says. “He told me he hopes the story casts light into darkness, and he said the person he most needs to thank is his daughter, for giving him the courage. He wants to work for an NGO. I can’t wait for him to understand how big it is, what he – a poor farmer from a tiny village where everyone was against him – has done.”

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