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Pavithra Chalam’s Rooting for Roona introduced a little girl with hydrocephalous, her mother, and their incredible story to the world.
“If I really had to summarise our experience producing Rooting for Roona, I would say that it is a love story” says Pavithra Chalam, director of the Netflix Documentary that has been on the receiving end of specular responses from critics and organisations alike. Many have praised the sensitively shot forty one minutes that draw you in, making you a part of Roona’s story.
Now a director, Pavithra was once also peace ambassador to Pakistan, an experience that she says made her fall in love with the medium of film. Her production house Curleystreet Media now makes films about things that are “uncomfortable, awkward and complex”.
Their newest release is the Netflix documentary Rooting for Roona.
Pavithra’s documentary tells the story of Roona, a child born with a birth defect termed hydrocephalus to parents Abdul and Fatema in a small village in Tripura.
The film captures the story of a family trying to make ends meet while doing all they can to give their daughter the life she rightly deserved.
Pavithra came across Roona in 2013 in an article written by her journalist friend. In a summary of her experience, she describes the little baby girl’s picture to have broken her heart. Determined to tell a story of hope, Pavithra’s team decided to beat all barriers. Years of following Roona’s medical story, the story of a family, the story of a mother and a child eventually bought Roona and her life story to millions.
Pavithra describes the experience as “complex seven years” that made Roona an important part of her life and the lives of the team that shot the documentary. To Pavithra, these seven years imparted an understanding of the life of a family fighting insurmountable odds to raise an extraordinary child- an insight that according to Pavithra can only be gained from an intimate connection to the family.
“Many of us spent more time with Roona and her family than we did with our own families,” she says. Despite making films in the space of children with complex needs, Pavithra describes her own experience of their lives to have been “at a distance” until Rooting for Roona.
However, at the root of this documentary is the intimate connection between Pavithra’s team and Roona’s family.
“The most important thing is trust,” says Pavithra. This began with Pavithra’s team becoming a part of Roona’s medical journey from the very beginning. They became the link between the doctors and the family, their assistant director Ananya Pal being the only person that spoke the family’s dialect.
“We became the people that fought for them, that made sure vaccinations were in place, medical records were in place, we got their birth certificates” says Pavithra. The team’s support for the family is a significant indicator of a connection that extended beyond just the film. “While the doctors weren’t certain she could see, she (Roona) recognised us and would often break into a smile when we spoke to her,” says Pavithra.
Pavithra also describes the female strength of the team that supported Fatema.
“We’re more women on our crew than men and as a result, we built quite a deep empathy with Fatema who really is the protagonist of the story. There was this unspoken bond of the shared life of a woman,” Pavithra describes a strong relationship that kept her female members privy to Fatema’s fears, secrets and joys. An honest and close relationship is what according to Pavithra fuels the narrative of the documentary.
The honest, intimate dynamic that the team shared with the family turned their roles from observatory to participatory. However, the team drew a line about their roles in Roona’s life.
“One thing we promised ourselves and kept to, was that all decisions about Roona’s care must come from Abdul and Fatema.” In doing so, the team displayed respect for Roona’s parents and their own limited role in decisions about Roona’s life.
In choosing which instances from the family’s life should be shot, the team stuck to only those that were significant to Roona and her journey. Even within an intimate connection to the family, and aiding some of their needs, the filmmakers’ approach had to remain respectful and true to their motive- which as Pavithra expresses was to “see Roona’s condition improve” and capture her life. “Every decision started and ended with Roona,” she says.
When there was a relationship of trust with the family, locals began to accept and adapt to the team as well. Pavithra’s team set out to capture Roona’s story, her family and her surroundings, all in their true form. In doing so Pavithra describes her team to have become a part of the ‘social fabric’ of their life.
Through shooting the documentary, Pavithra’s team tells the story of not only an extraordinary child but also a family in one of the remotest parts of the country. “The most important part is the lack of access to healthcare,” says Pavithra. Having experienced Roona’s health journey with the family, Pavithra describes how in the event of an emergency, the access to healthcare is ‘abysmal’. The team, she says worked with people in India who “need reliable and accessible healthcare more than any of us do.”
As an ending note, the film highlights how ‘birth defect’ is a condition still absent from the list of global priorities. Pavithra describes the story of birth defects to be a ‘neglected one’- there being an urgent need of a health system that caters to needs of these children. She also highlights how a fight against these illnesses needs to begin “even before mothers conceive.” She highlights how her team has set up an impact campaign with seven films that is also working on educating women and health workers about birth defects, the required medical procedures and their rights to attain them.
Despite the various panel discussions, responses from organisation and significant individuals and outstanding responses from critiques, Pavithra assigned more importance to the larger impact of the film. The documentary aimed to build an “environment of empathy” and it succeeded. “If people are moved emotionally, it means they have taken a moment to think about this child and her family- that is the beginning of the change we want to have.”
When asked about how the Documentary changed her approach to the area she works in, Pavithra says that “now more than ever, we (her team) are determined that something has to be done.” She describes the film to be only the beginning, “the first step” to create a curiosity that will breed change.
Most importantly for Pavithra, Rooting for Roona introduced a little girl with an incredible story to the rest of the world. “Our dream of the world getting to know Roona as we did, as the bravest little girl whose will to live defied all odds, has been realised” she says.
Pavithra Chalam’s Rooting for Roona, tells the story of a little girl and a mother’s love compelling the audience to empathise with Roona and attempt to understand her story, all while addressing the all-consuming, grave issue of birth defects. Pavithra described the film as being only the first step in the fight against birth defects but also remarks how important it was to tell a “story of hope” even against a premise of vulnerability, loss and fear.
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A student of International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. Enjoys old bands and acrylics.
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