At 6 am on May 25, 2014, just about a month shy of her 14th birthday, Poorna Malavath, daughter of a poor Dalit agricultural labourer from Telengana, reached to the top of Mt Everest after a 52-day long expedition. She became the youngest girl to conquer the highest peak of the world. But her story of true grit failed to make it to the front pages and most of India remained unaware of her extraordinary feat, until now.
Rahul Bose is returning to film direction after 15 years with an eponymous biopic on Poorna. We caught up with the actor/director at the music launch of the movie. Excerpts:
Why did you not direct anything in between?
Because my acting career was very fulfilling from 2002 after I made Everybody Says I’m Fine to 2013 after which good roles began to dry up. That’s when I began to look for something I can direct. However, I was only supposed to act in this film, everything else followed organically once I read the story.
The first reaction is usually the purest. Do you remember yours when you heard the story?
Yes, it was a combination of shame and wonder. Shame because it was unbelievable I hadn’t heard of Poorna’s achievement before. I pride myself in being pretty well-read on both, social subjects and sport and had completely missed this story because it hadn’t been reported to the extent it should have been. Wonder because you couldn’t ask for anything more to make a mainstream Bollywood script. A poor, uneducated, tribal girl shatters the world record climbing Everest at the age of 13. Fantastic!
What is that one thing about Poorna Malavath that has impacted you the most?
It is her combination of infectious teenage enthusiasm and the wisdom of a 200-year-old. Once you see 6 bodies on Everest your perspective on life and death, your wisdom of what is important and what is not, your understanding of what the definition of success is changes profoundly.
As you said, she is a woman and a tribal and had all the odds stacked against her. Which one do you think is the worse malice plaguing the nation today?
It’s not about being a woman or a tribal, the greatest evil in society is discrimination - gender, caste, color, race and income. Most people in this country face a combination of these differentiators. Unless and until society moves to a more equitable and less judgmental space, it can never progress.
How difficult it is to make a biopic and staying true to the original events given the fact that real life doesn’t always have melodrama, songs in chiffon, long drives through winding roads and conniving villains?
It wasn’t difficult at all when you have such a dramatic story to work with. The original events were so dramatic, so improbable, so thrilling, it was a roller coaster ride just listening to Poorna tell the tale. We have created one fictional character to be the catalyst at a crucial point in Poorna’s life. Otherwise the rest of the story is pretty close to the bone.
In fact, I think Poorna is the acid test. This film is going to show us whether a biopic, sans any star, can pull the audiences to the theatres by the sheer strength of its story.
How did you managed to resist the temptation of casting a pretty face as the lead?
The most important thing for me in a biopic is believability. We auditioned over 500 girls from the social welfare schools, and shortlisted 109. I was still not convinced. Finally, the 110th girl was our Poorna! Aditi Inamdar is a girl from Hyderabad. Her audition was staggering. She has an innocence coupled with a wisdom that no one can teach you. Aside from that, she’s just loaded with talent. Watch out for her.
What kind of litmus test did you put before the girls whom you auditioned?
There are three things I was testing for in the 500 odd girls we auditioned: talent, the ability to take direction and most importantly, an ability to handle pressure because a film set is all about pressure – pressure of time pressure, of money, of costars forgetting their lines, of losing the light etc.
Aditi’s talent was obvious to see. Just before the audition, I asked her about the saddest moment of her life and she told us about the time she lost her grandfather. While narrating the story, she began to cry. It was at that point that I began the real audition. It was amazing how she pulled herself together, took directions, and delivered. I knew I had our Poorna.
This seems to be a film that ticks all the boxes to get noticed at the international film festivals. Yet you are not sending it to any. Why?
I always believe international festivals are great for movies that need to find and cultivate an audience. Poorna’s audience is staring at us in the face – it’s every single Indian. Given that, I was certain once the film was ready we would give it a big fat mainstream release. We might go to festivals after the release of the film.
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