By Ila Ananya
The first time Poorna Malavath saw Mount Everest, she turned to her coach and said cheerfully, “It’s not that tall. We can climb it in a day.” She was 13 years old.
Malavath had come to the Everest base camp from a government residential school in Telangana after eight months of gruelling mountaineering training. As part of her training, she had had to scale Mount Renock at 17,000 feet in the Kanchenjunga range in the Himalayas, which was then followed by acclimatisation in the mountains around Ladakh, at -35 degrees Celsius. On 25 May 2014, Malavath, along with her 17-year-old friend S Anand Kumar, summited Everest. She became the youngest girl in the world to have ever done this.
Malavath’s cheerful declaration that it was possible to summit Everest in a day, is the same determination that we become familiar with in Rahul Bose’s new biopic Poorna. Through Aditi Inamdar (who plays Malavath in the film), we see her as a young girl beginning to enjoy mountaineering, and the camera zooming in to her palms on the rock beneath her adds to this.
We see in the film that the first time she begins to climb a rock (the steep Bhongir rock in Telangana, no less), Malavath does it without ropes. Hesitantly, but almost instinctively, she seems to know which rock crevices will work as footholds and how to pull herself up slowly, and we can only imagine that this is true. If these scenes aren’t enough to convince us immediately that mountaineering is extremely important to her, a little later we see Poorna asking Indian Police Services (IPS) officer RS Praveen Kumar (who pushes her to be a part of the Everest expedition), if she can keep the rock climbing shoes she’s been given at practice.
That first time climbing the Bhongir rock was one of the two times Malavath says she has felt scared in her entire mountaineering experience. If the excitement on Inamdar’s face, once she is at the top of Bhongir rock, is enough for anybody watching the film to know she wants to do it again, Malavath says that when she had finished, all her fears disappeared. Her legs stopped shaking. “I knew I could do it, and that was enough,” she says. The only other time she was afraid was when she saw graves on the final stretch of her Everest climb. They were there because nobody could take the bodies home.
Throughout our conversation, Malavath, who is now 16 and is finishing her class 12 exams, is firm about one thing. She says time and again that the only thing she has wanted her achievements to prove, was that, “Girls can achieve anything”. She says this when I ask her what she likes about mountaineering, and she says it again when I ask her about her interest in sports. “People think girls can’t do everything, but in my experience, they can,” she says. “It was my reason for climbing Everest.”
When Malavath describes climbing Everest, there’s no mention of worrying about 17 deaths because of an avalanche around the area the day they reached the base camp, or how ill she fell when she had first got there. But in Poorna we see her fever rising steadily, and in another interview, Malavath has mentioned in passing how she would throw up every day.
Instead, she describes what it was like to be on the summit — “We stayed there for 15 minutes,” she says. The first thing she did was to call up Officer RS Praveen Kumar, to tell him she has made it. “He said congratulations, and that was enough,” she says. Then she and Anand took photographs of each other and began the journey back. The whole expedition lasted 52 days.
Malavath’s story and the clarity with which she talks is startling. Rahul Bose, who produces, directs, and acts in Poorna, says, “The arc that Poorna travels, from being undereducated, an adivasi girl, who is poor, and by just being from Telangana where there isn’t even a hill let alone a mountain, is just outstanding.” He adds that the fear that constantly bothered him was of the movie impacting Malavath’s life in a way that it shouldn’t, particularly because she is only 16, and there are a lot more things she is going to do.
But for Bose, doing the film was a no-brainer. This was partly because the number of Bollywood movies we see on sportswomen (Mary Kom, Dangal, and now Poorna), is very disproportionate to the many stories we should be seeing. But while Dangal and Mary Kom were also movies that became about winning for India, Poorna refreshingly stayed clear of this and focused on Malavath, the individual.
So, we’re shown an important backstory. The loveliest scenes in Poorna, more than the stunning visuals of her climbing snow-capped mountain ranges, are when we see Inamdar interacting with her cousin Priya (S Mariya). They go to school together, and decide to run away to another residential school together — a school where they’d be allowed to sit in class and would get to eat an egg a day.
Throughout the film, we see Priya, the same girl who wants to throw a stone at an infuriating teacher because she refuses to allow the two girls into class, talk with startling frankness about the marriage she was forced into when she got caught running away. She keeps insisting that Poorna go for her training and stay in school so that Poorna isn’t forced to get married and live her life. Finally, Poorna’s friendship with Priya becomes the reason she climbs Everest. This is the only fictionalised account in the film, “To hit harder the point that girls can do anything,” Malavath says.
We wish we saw more of Malavath’s Everest expedition in the film. It is only a small part of the otherwise two-hour long film, which spends time taking us back to Pakala, Malavath’s village in Telangana, showing us the lives of other girls, and how a system, when it works well, can really push children forward. It’s no wonder that last year, Malavath summited Kilimanjaro, and apart from wanting to become an IPS officer, she says she will never stop being a mountaineer.
Co-published with Firstpost.