Biopics of achievers are often inexorable buildups to a singular instance of greatness. Every narrative move is a step towards the moment of personal glory¸ followed by a scroll that contextualises the event and photographs of the real achiever.
Rahul Bose’s Poorna follows the template, but with a significant difference. Thirteen-year-old Poorna Malavath’s triumphant trudge up to Mount Everest in 2014, which made her the youngest girl in the world to do so, is only a small part of the 105-minute movie. It comes long after a satisfying back story that takes place miles away from the icy surfaces of the great mountain.
Bose focuses on the impoverished village and humble government-run school where Poorna first dreams of being a mountaineer. Poorna (Aditi Inamdar) and her cousin Priya (S Mariya) are destined to be undereducated child brides. Encouraged by Priya, Poorna compels her father to enroll her in one of the special schools run by the Andhra Pradesh government’s Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society scheme. Priya has filled Poorna’s ears with stories of the culinary treats (a boiled egg in every meal!) at the schools, and the wispy and underfed teenager is sorely disappointed with the watery dal served with stale rice.
Indian Police Service officer RS Praveen Kumar (Bose), who has been deputed by the state government to boost school enrolment, has also slurped the same unappetising grub during a surprise inspection. As he embarks on a clean-up, Kumar hits upon an idea to improve numbers – why not send the predominantly tribal and lower-caste children to the tallest peak on the planet?
Bose’s movie, his second in 15 years after the bold yet flawed drama Everybody Says I’m Fine!, doesn’t dwell on the gimmickry inherent in Kumar’s grand plan. (Heeba Shah, playing a sour-faced bureaucrat, is the only dissenter). Poorna instead uses the moment to discuss the need for properly implemented state-welfare schemes. A teenager who braves an arduous trek that puts her in harm’s way may not be the best example of good governance, but Poorna confidently puts forth its argument that committed and sensitive bureaucrats and leaders can truly transform lives.
The movie settles firmly into conventional mode once the operation to scale Everest has been launched – there are rousing speeches, training montages, and minor wins, all leading up to the triumphant clamber up to the peak. But ever so often, Bose reminds us of the world Poorna has left behind, but which refuses to leave her alone. Priya remains the teenager’s lodestar, and it is her cousin’s inability to move out of her village that propels Poorna onto the international stage.
The most powerful moments are the interactions between the two girls, both played marvellously by first-time actresses. Aditi Inamdar and S Mariya overshadow the adult actors (including Dhritiman Chatterjee as a bureaucrat and Harsha Vardhan as the Andhra Pradesh chief minister) and rescue the movie from its do-gooder earnestness. Priya’s carefree spirit, stifled by convention, and Poorna’s hard-earned courage, bolstered by Priya’s sacrifice, elevate a standard-issue celebration of achievement and national glory into something tender, moving and actually inspiring.