rooting for roona

Directors: Pavitra Chalam, Akshay Shankar
Editor: Jyolsna Panicker
Genre: Short documentary
Streaming on: Netflix

As is the case with the most short documentaries, the 40-minute-long Rooting for Roona is about what’s on screen just as much as what happens off the screen. The subject is little Roona Begum, a baby girl born with an astonishing birth defect called hydrocephalus. A build-up of fluid in her brain means that Runa’s head is gigantic (“like a baby alien”) – at age 2, it has a circumference of almost 37 inches. The film documents Roona’s journey: a chance photograph of an 18-month-old Roona attracts global attention, a surgeon in Delhi charts her road to normalcy, every subsequent surgery repairs and remodels her skull, until in 2017 the time arrives for her final and most crucial operation. When Roona is on camera, the viewer is conditioned to root for her. We want her to be a symbol of hope and inspiration, an against-all-odds story, a rural fairytale. We want her to be everything but an ordinary person. 

To the credit of its makers, Rooting for Roona is rarely framed as a medical-miracle documentary. The film is clearly attached to its subject: the makers are invested, they feel responsible for the girl, they even help with the transport and treatment. The end credits feature each of them holding Roona in their arms. For better or worse, there’s not enough distance between the two for Roona – and her journey – to become something as impersonal as a miracle. As a result, Rooting for Roona is more of a silent sociocultural portrait: the “rooting” in the title stands for support just as much as it stands for the roots of the people portrayed in the documentary.

Consequently, the actual film unfurls when Roona is not on camera. Appropriately, it unfurls in an India that is rarely seen on camera. The village in Tripura, the circumstances, the environment, the superstitions, the young parents, the lack of surgical intervention, the neglect of small-town doctors, the tiny mistakes. It opens with a gentle voiceover of the mother, Fatema: Roona was conceived on a rainy day. As we move deeper into Fatema’s story, her own voice disappears – and is replaced by intertitles that highlight Roona’s status over the years. In some ways, this also suggests that Roona’s fate slowly starts to escape her mother’s care: Fatema loses the reins of her own struggles, and has lesser say in her daughter’s condition once the big-city professionals take over. The focus then turns towards Fatema and her husband. In a parallel universe, one suspects that the two incompatible souls might have drifted apart. But Roona – their beautiful crisis – keeps them together. This is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s written on their faces: They want Roona to survive and live normally, but they also want the brokenness of Roona to keep sustaining their fragile bond.

From the looks of it, the filmmakers visit the village annually, depending on the progress of Roona’s health. I like the effect this has on the viewer. Every time we meet Fatema and Abdul, they’ve changed a little. Their views morph into fears. They become different, older people. We’re reminded that they were little more than children when they had Roona, and that adulthood is perhaps sucking them back into the jaws of tradition and small-mindedness. From being upbeat about Roona’s initial surgeries, they become cagey about the final procedure. They stall, fret about her future, wonder if Roona is fine the way she is, and we realize that time is running out: The couple, too, is starting to get infected with the make-do illness. Even though we don’t really see who and what reduces their thinking, it’s natural evolution. They’re surrounded by those who blame Roona’s condition on their “sins” (a defiant marriage), and one particular scene – where we see them run from pillar to post at a local hospital to scan Roona’s head injury – hints at the factors at play when the makers are away. 

The documentary unfurls in an India that is rarely seen on camera. The village in Tripura, the circumstances, the environment, the superstitions, the young parents, the lack of surgical intervention, the neglect of small-town doctors, the tiny mistakes

On a visit in 2016, the makers find Fatema with a newborn son. He has no defects. The parents look pleased with themselves. Roona is still around, but her treatment is not their only priority anymore. Some unsavoury thoughts dawn on us: Are they trying to replace Roona? Is the son a wish-fulfillment surrogate for what they wanted Roona to become? Did they have him to feel less damaged? Or worse, are they diffusing an ongoing tragedy by creating their own happily ever after? All of this and none of this is true. What transpired between visits, all of us experience but none of us know. The camera knows too, but it resists interrupting the cycle of otherhood. It doesn’t infest; it invests. After all, rooting for someone is uprooting them from the vagaries of life. 

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