In an interview to The Wire, Rahul Bose talks about his new movie Poorna, a biopic about a 13-year-old Poorna Malavath, the youngest girl to climb Everest.
On May 25, 2014, Poorna Malavath – a 13-year-old tribal girl from Pakala, a village in Telangana – scaled Mount Everest. She became the youngest girl in the world to achieve the feat. The youngest boy to scale that peak, Jordan Romero from the US, is a month older than Malavath. A film based on her life, Poorna, directed by Rahul Bose, releases on 31st March. The Wire spoke to the filmmaker about Poorna, his filmmaking goals and his acting career.
Excerpts from the chat:
When did you first become aware of Poorna Malavath’s achievement? What struck you the most about it?
I was only aware of her achievement once I was offered the script. I guess it was February-March 2015. It was a combination of shame and astonishment that I didn’t know this story, because I inhabit the world of sport, of social activism. It was really a shock that the narrative of any country is invariably held and controlled by two cities – in India’s case, Mumbai and Delhi.
Besides, two things struck me about the story: one is the sheer impossibility of it. Climbing Everest is easily the most arduous thing on Earth. And a 13-year-old climbed that mountain. She could have died on it. The fact that she didn’t, you’ve to ask yourself, ‘Who is this girl?’ Does she have a mountaineering pedigree? No. Is she from a place that is mountainous? No. Is she rich so she could afford the best equipment and facilities? No. She’s an undereducated tribal 13-year-old poor girl from Telangana, which has got a history of nothing but flatlands. It doesn’t even have a hillock, let alone a mountain.
So the combination of these ridiculously impossible factors made me think, ‘How did it happen?’ And then I got to know how it happened, and I saw the condition, which is prevalent in so many parts of India, as it is in her village. She had to cross many incredible barriers, and I don’t think she was even aware of them. Then we said, now we’ve a real story.
What were some of the most pressing challenges you faced while making Poorna – both before and during the filming process?
There are two different kinds of challenges. One is the physical. You start in Pakala, in 45 °C, and you end up in Sikkim, in -15 °C, at 15,000 feet, in January. And in those 60 degrees lies the story of this film. So it was physically very arduous.
But something else was equally challenging – that I was making a biopic on someone whose life is in front of her, not behind her. Most biopics are centred on people who have crossed their zenith. We’re looking back on their lives. But, in this case, if I made a misstep, it’d impact the rest of her life.
A film like Poorna – based on the story of a girl from a historically disadvantaged background rising above her circumstances – lends itself to an important social message. However, intimate sincere films like these can also run the risk of being preachy. Was that something at the back of your mind while making the film?
It was never on my mind – never ever. Because the kind of person I am, it is going to show. So I never laboured the point. If I’m going to make a film about an Adivasi poor undereducated girl, then, very clearly, we will get an idea of her background. The moment I start in a hut, and not in a set in Mumbai, you know where I’m going with this film. It’s also about the lens. It’s like a T-20 player playing cricket, and a test player playing cricket. They’re both batsmen, and the same bowlers are bowling, but the lens with which they look at the game is different. It’s as simple as that. I’ve zero wish to be a T-20 player; I never will be. I might make a film that lends itself to the T-20 [format], like this one. In fact, in the hands of somebody else, she could be walking in slow-motion while some jingoistic song played in the background. With a different filmmaker, this could be all about India, India, India, and of course it isn’t, but of course it is. So what do I have to prove in that context? I knew that films should give you enough to give you the fragrance of a moment, or the fragrance of a dish. You don’t need to show the dish in front of people.
Your first film, Everybody says I’m Fine! released 15 years ago. What kept you from direction for so long?
It was pure acting. From Mr and Mrs Iyer to Dil Dhadakane Do, it has been a 13-year long journey – and it was great. And the roles began to dry out even before Dil Dhadakne Do. But, by then, from 2014 onwards, I had already begun thinking what I should do next as a director. I’m going to be producing and directing for the rest of my life. However, it is deeply embarrassing to act in your own film, so I’m not going to do that. But I’ll definitely be acting in other films.
It was also a very different film – in terms of style, subject, tone. What kind of films do you see yourself making in the future?
I think the only commonality would be humanism. I’m writing my next film about a woman in Bombay; it is fiction. It is gritty –it is City of Gods meets a heart the size of a watermelon. And it’s a woman whose completely invisible, and yet we see her everyday. And it’s got a bit of Everybody Says I’m Fine! in it, so who knows? But there’s never going to be a calculation that I’m going to do a children’s film next, or what’s missing in my range? I mean, [Satyajit] Ray never moved out of his range.
You recently said in an interview that you feel you’ve been edged out of the new alternate cinema, which fixes its gaze on India’s small towns and villages. Do you think you got typecast as an actor?
We get typecast as human beings in a party. We get typecast in a railway station waiting room. So human beings are wired that way. But if I can do the Japanese Wife, then I can play the rural. But if you don’t think I can play the rural, I can’t help it. But you’ve to accept that there are very fine actors who can come and clearly do the rural, the UP [Uttar Pradesh], the gangland, then you’ve to ask yourself, ‘Excuse me, when India was going through the urban Indian phase, you were the face of the urban Indian. You were English, August.’ And you rode that wave all the way from English, August; Bombay Boys, Takshak, Everybody Says I’m Fine! – you rode it till Pyaar Ke Side Effects, till Shaurya. You rode it from 1995 to 2008, so what the fuck are you cribbing about?