Filmmaker Pavitra Chalam: We Cannot Afford To Fall Short When Our Camera Is The Window To The Truth
- IWB Post
- August 20, 2019
Pavitra Chalam started her career as a documentary filmmaker in 2003 with a film called ‘Bus,’ which was a cinematic exposition of the shared ideals of India and Pakistan. Since then, her films have been projecting the issues of social importance, many of which have received critical acclaim across the world.
In the past, she’s contributed to the creation of the Casablanca Declaration presented to the United Nations and eventually, got a chance to travel across Europe in 2004 as an Ambassador for a UN project on social change. She often uses her films as a medium to ignite the minds of young people and that’s a major reason why she was featured on the cover of Ireland’s Life magazine as a forerunner of the ‘global sustainability’ community.
An Alumnus of the New York Film Academy, Pavitra’s thesis called ‘Anamika – Her Glorious Past’ (that was made at the academy itself) was selected for the Sixth IAAC Film Festival, 2006 in New York and the Indian Film Festival, Los Angeles in 2007. Anamika is a film on the Devadasi tradition, which also received many praises. Likewise, in 2010, she earned another accolade (Ability Media International (AMI) Award in London) for her film ‘Khushboo,’ which is about children with complex needs. Closer home, she was honored by the Government of India as one of 25 women achievers/ambassadors for social change.
However, her most recent and heart-touching work ‘Rooting for Roona’ is what caught our attention. In January 2019, Women In Film, Los Angeles, announced the recipients of their 33rd annual Film Finishing Fund wherein Pavitra received a grant to produce this film which is about the struggle, survival and hope of an Indian family and their ill baby girl, Roona.
This talented girl from Bengaluru, who is also the founder of Curley Street, spoke to us in detail about how Roona, whose life she spent six years documenting, entirely changed her perspective of life and instilled the essence of motherhood in her. While at it, she’s also suggesting the names of the useful govt. policies that support the rights and needs of less-privileged parents of special kids.
Tell our readers about your protagonist, Roona.
‘Rooting for Roona’ is a film that fights for the health of the Indian child and captures the incredible story of baby Roona Begum, who was born with Hydrocephalus, a birth defect caused by a build-up of fluid in the brain leading to massive swelling of the head. This is also the story of her parents Abdul and Fatema, who led a hand-to-mouth existence and struggled to cope and understand what ailed their daughter. Their trips to state-level government hospitals were in vain because these hospitals were poorly equipped to treat her. With no means to travel beyond their home state of Tripura, Abdul and Fatema were resigned to their daughter’s tragic fate until a photo-journalist took a photo of her. Overnight, this powerful photograph went viral globally. It triggered an amazing chain of events that eventually resulted in Roona being admitted to one of India’s premier private hospitals in New Delhi. Headlines across the world celebrated her journey to, hopefully, a healthier life. Then the media frenzy settled down and the world moved on. We were the only ones who remained and followed her story for the following six years.
The entire journey of working with Roona and her family must have been emotional for you. Share the experience.
As I got to know Roona and her parents and we started investigating the root of her condition, we became emotionally invested in her story and the unheard stories of thousands of children like her who we knew are out there, waiting for help. It was heartbreaking to see her lying in pain. Her fragile body was completely dwarfed by the size of her head. We stood by her as she completed innumerable surgeries and always came out stronger than before. But one of the things that struck us the most when we first met Roona’s parents was how young they both were and yet how weary and worried they looked.
I remember, in May 2017, we took Roona to Delhi for a final medical assessment. The doctor scheduled her final surgery for mid-July. He was thrilled with her progress and very optimistic about her future. She would soon be walking and it would be a miracle of unmatched proportions. As with everything in life, the process of making a film comes with inexplicable outcomes. At 8:10 PM on Sunday (18th June), we received the dreaded call from her mother. Our beloved Roona developed unexpected breathing issues and passed away at home. This was a profound loss for us and so many people who have fought for her by our side for so many years, but Roona was and always will remain a symbol of hope. We were fortunate to be with her, her family and her entire community as the last rites were performed at sunset in Jirania. In our grief, we made a pact that her beautiful life would not be lived in vain and so now more than ever, we stand strong for Roona and the health of the Indian Child.
What inspires you and keeps your going after such intense filmmaking processes?
I am constantly inspired by the impact of the emotional journeys I take with every film, every hero and every subject I pursue. ‘Rooting For Roona,’ for example, has personally been a labor of love. A few months after Roona passed away, I found out I was pregnant. The edit of the film took place through my pregnancy and this gave me a certain strength and conviction I had never experienced before. My dream was to bring both the babies to life in the best way I could – Roona to the screen and my own little one into a better world. Apart from this, I was filled with gratitude. When my baby was put into my arms for the first time in all his perfection, I almost collapsed in gratitude. Amid that delirious joy, I realized I stood in solidarity with every parent who was struggling with a child with complex needs. I named my son Yohaan because it means one who carries luck and kindness.
A few days before I went into labor, we finished the first cut of the film. The day before my son’s first birthday, we had the world premiere of the film. I didn’t know this then but the film had begun to prepare me for motherhood in the most honest, brutal, and incredible way. I’m so grateful to this little girl for letting me into her life.
Since maternal health is largely responsible for a child’s well being, did you happen to notice any biased behavior of the society towards the mother in Roona’s film?
Indeed, the burden and the fight for Roona’s survival lay heavily on Fatema’s shoulders. When Roona was born, the community tried to make the parents believe that they were being punished for sins they had committed. Many asked Fatema to abandon Roona. Some saw Roona as a lifelong curse for the young couple. Yet, Fatema never wavered in her determination to stand by her child and protect her. She always told us that she would do anything for Roona. That no matter what the odds or the outcome, she would fight for Roona. For Fatema, her daughter’s survival was a hard-won victory – every single day. She was not alone, after all. As young as he was, Abdul was a more involved father than one usually sees in these kinds of circumstances. Together they stood up to the brutality of their circumstances and surroundings. The beauty of their story lies in their resilience in the face of stigma and hardship.
There is this very crucial moment in the film where the parents refuse to get their little one operated, that possibly could have saved Roona’s life. Take us through those invisible frames behind the camera that could explain this their decision.
In February 2016, we went back to Tripura where we received a pleasant surprise. Fatema had delivered a healthy baby boy named Akhtar Hussain. Amidst this happy family time, we felt a palpable tension between Abdul and Fatema. The strain of now having to care for both Roona and Akhtar had taken a toll on Fatema. She told us how Roona sensed her burden and was purposely less demanding. We observed that a degree of neglect towards Roona had set in with the added responsibility of a second child. We urged the parents to take Roona for her final surgery before it was too late. We told them that we had been advised by Dr. Sandeep Vaishya, Roona’s doctor at Fortis, that her final surgery needed to be conducted within a month or two. Delaying it any further would reduce her chances of walking or recovering. Abdul was unwilling to travel with Roona while leaving Fatema at home. He was clear they would travel only after Akhtar was able to walk. Fatema assured us that she would let us know when they were ready for the final surgery. It was their circumstances that stood in the way. A year later, Fatema called us to say that they were ready to take the next step. She said she was finally strong again. Unfortunately, fate had other plans.
It is easy for us to sit back and judge their decision and the impact of that decision on their daughter’s life but in reality, they were bound by their circumstances. Children are the first to thrive or suffer when their environment changes and their fear for their youngest child was real. Fatema also was struggling to nurse Akhtar as well as take care of Roona the way she used to. The thought of traveling with both children to Delhi was something that seemed daunting and impossible to her at the time. As frustrated and scared as we were, we stood by our promise to ourselves that all decisions about Roona’s care must come from Abdul and Fatema. No matter how much we wanted to take Roona away right then for her surgery, this was their child and while we were their greatest support, we had to always respect their choices. We did then and we always will.
What kind of mental stress and social stigma are faced by the parents of special kids? Does one’s caste & social status add up to the difficult times? Also, share about the support systems available to guide these parents?
Caste and social status can add to the extent of marginalization from resources, access to care and a lack of sensitivity. Thousands of children like Roona are born with birth defects (congenital anomalies) every day but are outside the reach of necessary healthcare. In Roona’s case, unfortunately, the hospitals in Agartala were not equipped with the kind of medical personnel or resources that could have conducted this standard yet a life-saving procedure. Her parents were told that they would have to travel outside the state for treatment or she might not live. Sadly, they could not afford to travel with Roona outside their home state of Tripura. Their socioeconomic status was definitely one of the biggest impediments to accessing healthcare.
Talking about the stress these parents face, I’m assuming that encountering significant judgment and facing a lack of understanding regarding their child’s functioning take a toll on their mental health. And so, it is recommended to gain professional support and care across various stages of their child’s development. However, while people living in larger towns and cities have better access to resources such as trained educators, psychologists, doctors and other professionals, the government infrastructure – both educational and healthcare – is poorly kitted in the rural areas to deal with these challenges.
Can you tell us about the government policies and health covers that can make the journey of these parents easier?
In 2005, the Government of India launched the Janani Suraksha Yojana, which is a safe motherhood intervention under the National Rural Health Mission. It is being implemented to reduce maternal and infant mortality by promoting institutional delivery among pregnant women. The scheme is under implementation in all states and Union Territories, with a special focus on the Low Performing States like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Rajasthan, Orissa, Jammu, and Kashmir.
Other than prevention, the other approach is that of mitigation. In 2013, the year we began covering Roona’s story, the Indian Government fortuitously launched an ambitious initiative called the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK) – a Child Health Screening and Early Intervention Programme. It aims to screen over 270 million children from 0 to 18 years for the 4 Ds – Defects at birth, Diseases, Deficiencies and Development Delays including Disabilities. The key feature of this initiative is the continuum of care extending over different phases of the first 18 years of a child’s life. If it succeeds, millions of children like Roona will get a chance to live a productive life. The burden it will lift from the families of these children is incalculable.
As part of a grassroots initiative, Curley Street is also developing an impact campaign focused on preventive maternal health. This campaign aims to address existing gaps in the preventive maternal healthcare space and create measurable impact. We’re focusing on two specific purposes:
- As knowledge and training resources that empower frontline health workers like ANMs (Auxiliary Nurses and Midwives), ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), and Anganwadi workers.
- As health education tools and behavioral change communication targeted at the community.
The videos will cover topics that address areas of need in the preventive maternal health space such as Anaemia, high-risk pregnancies, nutrition during pregnancy, birth preparedness, etc. We are now at the pilot stage where the first few videos will be implemented in select geographical areas in Karnataka in collaboration with the partner organizations who work in the field of primary health in these areas, interfacing with frontline health workers and the community. This campaign has been built from the ground up as a collaboration between Curley Street, NGOs, the Government, frontline health workers, medical experts as well as the mothers and families in rural areas who are most affected by the issues we are trying to address.
Tell us how the power of attachment impacts the making of a documentary.
The goal is always to capture the reality of a person, a moment, or an event without prejudice and find truth in the moving images. As filmmakers, we choose to actively participate in the film as a subjective observer where necessary, combining observational and participatory filming in the same breath. Just by their presence and relationship, the camera and the director unintentionally provoke the people who are being filmed and this provocation when done most sensitively and fairly can reveal natural dialogue and people’s true selves. It is the most fascinating form of art because it is born of true collaboration. If one element of the process falls out of place the whole scene/film can very easily fall to pieces. It is this fragility that gives cinema its true power.
As documentary filmmakers, we are vested with a very deep sense of responsibility – towards our subjects, the audience, and ourselves. We are telling the stories of people’s lives, their reality and cannot afford to fall short when our camera is the window to the truth. Often there is a lot of raw emotion involved in the way our stories unfold but it is up to us to make sure that while the audience feels the weight of that emotion, it is not glorified or exploited in any manner. It is simple, powerful and yet very real.
Can you take us through the library of your work and give us the list of movies to watch that highlight gender-issues?
I founded Curley Street in 2012 and today, it has grown to become an award-winning creative film production company dedicated to the creation of progressive media: films, documentaries and advocacy campaigns that promote social transformation. Over the last seven years, we have created more than 200 films on themes ranging from Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Healthcare, Technology to Education and Art. As long as these issues get out there and touch people, I know that we are affecting true and powerful change.
To this end, I have found that cinema can go beyond information and cold facts and immerse the audience in the poetry of survival, which is universally relatable. It is from here that positive change begins. So, here is some of our past work in the non-fiction space that you might want to go through. The first four are either women-centric stories or have a specific focus on gender-related issues.
(On January 16th, 2019, Women In Film (Los Angeles) announced the recipients of their 33rd Annual Film Finishing Fund. Pavitra Chalam received the grant for Rooting for Roona. The documentary short from India is directed by Pavitra Chalam and Akshay Shankar and produced by Curley Street. As the recipient of the Stella Artois grant, it is the only film from India among this year’s grantees. Pavitra and Akshay were flown to Sundance from the 24th to the 28th of January 2019 to receive the grant and attend sponsorship events, media interviews and meet with producers and distributors. Past recipients of the Fund have gone on to win Academy, Emmy, Sundance, Berlin Film Festival and Peabody Awards. The Stella Artois grant supports female filmmakers who are using the power of film to impact change.)
#HowWillWeRespond [PSA Campaign]
In 2017, we independently created a successful award-winning video campaign on Bystander intervention (BI) for women’s safety, called #HowWillWeRespond. Bystander Intervention (BI) is a violence prevention strategy that equips the community with information on how to respond when you witness a person in distress. The campaign engaged over a million people and truly became a people’s movement.
Our campaign videos garnered over a million views on Facebook and Twitter. Celebrities like Kalki Koechlin, Nandita Das, Shruti Hassan, Rahul Khanna, Nikhil Chinappa, Monica Dogra, Pankaj Advani, Alan Wilkins, Gouher Sultana, Meena Kandaswamy, Durjoy Datta, Mithali Raj, and more came out in support of this campaign and shared our content. The campaign culminated in an open workshop conducted by our expert, Dr. Divya Kannan in collaboration with Curley Street, which was well-attended by people from all over Bangalore.
- Watch Film: What Do You Stand For
- Watch Film: Last Seen
- Watch Film: Bystander 101
- Watch Film: How Revealing
- Watch Film: D for Distraction
- Watch Film: The Distraction Method
- Watch Film: Delay and Document
- Watch Film: The Girl At The Bar
In 2018, Curley Street won the Platinum Award in the Pro-Bono Campaign category and the Gold Award in the Social Media Video/PSA Campaign category at the 2018 AVA Digital Awards for #HowWillWeRespond. This campaign was the only winner from India at the 2018 AVAs. Curley Street’s entry was selected from more than 2,500 entries submitted from around the world.
Films on Sex-Trafficking
Curley Street, in partnership with iPartner, shares the stories of three beautiful young women who went from being victims to survivors of sexual exploitation, with the hope of reaching out to others in need of help.
Maanasi tells the story of the changing face of women’s mental health in rural southern India and has received critical acclaim the world over.
A feature documentary that offers a peek into the lives of people with Down syndrome living in India. Amidst the beaches and by-lanes of Chennai, Indelible discovers the indomitable spirit of seven people and their families, bound together by an extra chromosome. Diagnosed with Down syndrome, Babli, Revathi, Arti, Manimeghalai, Archana, Sandhya, and Ashwin invite us into their homes and hearts to witness everything that textbooks and Wikipedia left out: What are people with Down syndrome really like? How do their families cope? What of their dreams, beliefs, and karma? At its heart, Indelible is a story about hope and a tribute to the indestructible human spirit.
The film has a 16-minute short version, which was screened at the World Down Syndrome Congress (2012), South Africa as India’s official film on Down syndrome and won numerous awards in film festivals across the world. [Picture This Film Festival, DocuWest Film Festival, TexasThin Line Film Festival, Delhi Shorts Film Festival (People’s Choice Award and Jury Award)]. I was awarded the Asia Pacific Award for Outstanding Documentary Talent at the DocWeek film festival in Adelaide, Australia  for ‘Indelible – the feature’.
Amidst the rattle and hum of a developing India, Two Feet to Fly shows us how running has transformed the worlds of ordinary people struggling with their everyday demons. From poverty and affliction to addiction and depression, these six amateur runners narrate true accounts of how they broke free from their shackles by tapping into the inimitable power of running.
Two Feet to fly is a very special film to me because from the age of six to the age of 18 sport was my life, first as a speed skater and then as a runner, both at the national level. Everything that I learned about perseverance and determination I learned on the track. Personally, this film was a tribute to that part of my life.