Poorna Review: Standing Tall, Film Companion
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Director: Rahul Bose

Cast: Aditi Inamdar, Rahul Bose, S. Mariya, Arif Zakaria

It’s a little awkward when an actor directs a film in which his performance is the weakest link. Yet, Poorna is a rarity, not only because it’s a decent Indian biopic. It’s the kind of well-made, short and sincere little movie that transcends the Rahul Bose effect. It transcends not just his reputation as a relentless, poker-faced non-actor (his voice almost always sounds ‘dubbed’ – like an outer body microphone experience), but even his character, Praveen Kumar: the high-ranked, clean-dreaming government servant who mentors the heart of this story.

It isn’t about him. It isn’t about his face that, though well-intentioned, alternates between looking pedophilic and geriatric – perhaps his cunning method of magnifying the energy of the spirited kids he directs. To his credit, this face is, both literally and figuratively, the facilitator of Poorna – the film, as well the 13-year-old Telangana mountaineer who became the youngest girl ever to scale Mount Everest.

At face value, Poorna is a simple, unfussy underdog tale. It is driven by a terrific and very physical titular performance by debutant Aditi Inamdar. Bose amplifies emotions by employing his sound design (see what I did there?) smartly; while most desi filmmakers equate drama with higher decibels, he uses sudden silences and fadeouts to punctuate crucial moments.

Poorna Review: Standing Tall, Film Companion

That it not to say Poorna has a muted palette. The soundscape is heightened, as one would expect from a movie based on climbing to the top. But timing the background score is far more important than the score itself.

Especially towards the end, as the summit approaches, the craft takes over without being gimmicky. Only swimmers and extreme-cardio athletes will understand the sheer loneliness and momentum of hearing one’s own breathing rhythm when on the move. Disorienting perspective shots, if edited to a pattern and not overused, convey far more depth than visual effects ever will. Poorna does the other basics right, too: the technicalities of the sport, the initial rock-scaling parts, the training montages and the actual snowy Everest portions are designed from a child’s unfiltered point of view – unpretentious, feasible, chaotic and daunting all at once. The characters populating the background – the Chief Minister and his stooges, as well as Poorna’s parents and relatives in the village of Tadwai – are just about visible enough to not turn into kiddie-movie caricatures.

It’s a little awkward when an actor directs a film in which his performance is the weakest link. Yet, Poorna is a rarity, not only because it’s a decent Indian biopic. It’s the kind of well-made, short and sincere little movie that transcends the Rahul Bose effect

At one point, Kumar writes down ten simple rules on a blackboard in the verandah of the social-welfare school he adopts – moral-science variations of “always believe in the impossible”. This is sweet, almost too sweet, but symbolizes the essence of a film made about impressionable minds influenced at the correct time.

But there is, I believe, another uncomplicated layer of swirling feelings beneath its straightforward equations. The mentor-student relationship, while not completely reminiscent of the one in Budhia Singh: Born to Run – thanks to Manoj Bajpayee’s far superior turn as the coach – is still an evocative one. At some level, Kumar is an educated and soft-spoken Mahavir Singh Phogat – willing his oft-deluded dreams of the country’s betterment onto the frail shoulders of the little girl. Maybe he is using her innocence as an antidote to his failures of ‘adapting’ to Indian corruption.

His thinking is grassroots, a bit of a long shot, which makes her success all the more engaging. He recognizes her zest and need to escape from patriarchy and grief, perhaps exploiting this desperation in the most indirect way possible. He puts his reputation on the line, yes, but it’s her life on the line, and she’s too young to know the difference between exhaustion and weakness. In the end, everyone wins at the movies, because noble adults have the foresight that kids don’t – but at what cost?

Poorna Review: Standing Tall, Film Companion

There are hundreds of movies that aren’t made, stories that aren’t told about the souls that perish under the weight of such pressure. Their escape hatch shuts tight and suffocates the life out of them. Some grow up to become Andre Agassi, those who come to hate the life that lifted them out of mediocrity and mortality and obscurity, and the father/coach/mentor who forced a sport onto them. They choose to believe what they lost in the bargain, instead of remembering how much they hated to lose and what they represent.

But some, like the Phogat girls and Poorna, are products of a far less individual form of selfishness. They exist to essentially reverse the machinations of a culture. They grow to recognize the importance of the symbol their ‘men’ turn them into. Resentment is a mood, not an eventuality in their case. It’s ironic then, that one of this film’s few false notes is when Poorna, at an important mental juncture, breaks character to give an annoyingly adult answer [“I’ve found my reason, sir”] – to convince him that his ambitions have now become hers. The truth is, she will never know. The script wanted her to know. And as indebted as she will be to him and others like him, it will always be for pushing her out of a life instead of pushing her into another.

The mentor-student relationship, while not completely reminiscent of the one in Budhia Singh: Born to Run – thanks to Manoj Bajpayee’s far superior turn as the coach – is still an evocative one

When he tells her later that ‘her life won’t be hers anymore,’ it is perhaps the best outcome she can expect. It was never hers, the moment she rooted the national flag at the top of the mountain, instead of something more personal – spurred on unconsciously by the cause she embodied, not the pride she fostered. How much does, or should, a child know about patriotism anyway?

Even today, the real-life Poorna dreams of growing up to become an IPS officer, not scaling the other big peaks of the world. That the process to achieve this goal was simply a ‘stepping stone,’ and a glorious one at that, is the reason this film resonates a little deeper than others. Unlike others her age, she wasn’t born to climb. She just did it anyway.

Watch the trailer here: 

Rating:   star

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