“Poorna”… A quietly proficient take on a mind-boggling real-life story

Posted on April 30, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

So get this. A top-ranking government official in Telangana – Praveen Kumar (Rahul Bose), formerly in the police, now in the education department – hears that some government schools in villages are going to be closed because there simply aren’t enough students. Praveen needs a plan to increase enrolment. You think he’d improve the quality of the noonday meals, or maybe he’d hire better teachers who’d spark the children’s interest. But no. He decides he’ll make some of these kids climb Mount Everest. The words “based on a true story” are redundant. No screenplay writer would put forth such a mind-boggling scenario.

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One of Praveen’s superiors scoffs that he’s trying to make slumdog mountaineers, and darned if he isn’t: this is the story of an impoverished, 13-year-old tribal (Poorna, played by Aditi Inamdar) who became the youngest to scale the world’s highest peak. The film begins mid-ascent. There’s an avalanche. Many climbers are killed. The question, now, is whether Poorna will get the clearance to trek to the summit. Plus, she’s running a temperature of 104. In her tent, delirious, she starts dreaming about her… one would say ‘childhood,’ but she is herself a child. There’s hardly a back to flash to.

This scene is remarkable because it’s the only scene of high drama. And it’s not that there aren’t other crisis points. Poorna’s cousin is married off young, and she faces the same fate. The government-school food is terrible. Another film might have manufactured a crisis by cutting to Poorna’s family: they’d perhaps confront Praveen about the big dreams he’s tempting the little girl with. And what about the climb itself? It’s one potential crisis after another. There are crevasses to be crossed. There’s the low oxygen level. There’s the chattering cold, surely something new for someone from the sun-baked south. And did I mention the girl’s age?

We get a low-key crisis in an early scene where Poorna is taken rock-climbing along with other kids from her school. She climbs a bit, looks down, and freezes. The coach has to come and get her. Why did Bose, who also directed, not think to stage this scene on the grand stage of the Himalayas, where its impact would be thousandfold? One reason is perhaps the budget – suggesting is cheaper than showing.

But this could also be a reflection of Bose’s decision to restrict the story to Poorna’s  point of view. The actual climb that brought Poorna fame – and made this movie possible – is a mere few minutes towards the end, and even there, Bose keeps his camera close. A couple of mandatory vista shots apart, we just see the patch of ice in front of Poorna, illuminated by her headlamp. A small girl from a small village taking small steps.

The film is focused. It doesn’t invite us to wonder, as Budhia Singh: Born to Run did, whether this is exploitation, whether an adult is pursuing fame through a child. (Bose is his typically inscrutable self.) Neither do we get, like in Dangal, strains of resentment and rebellion. Without these offshoots, Poorna becomes a straightforward story, made with a quiet kind of proficiency, and anchored by a charming Aditi Inamdar. Whether playing with her cousin in the film’s most affecting scenes or setting out on the adventure of a lifetime, she makes us care. They should make these films a compulsory watch during history class in schools. Otherwise, students might end up thinking that the only kind of heroine is Rani Laxmibai.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi