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Love, rebellion and a powerful message

‘Pooja’ is a film about a young girl whose naivety in a patriarchal society results in horrifying consequences.

November 29, 2023 11:57 am

Screengrab via YouTube
Screengrab via YouTube

By Manushree Mahat

Pooja is just seventeen when she dies. Her burning body in a funeral pyre is where her father sees her for the last time. He blames her in-laws for her death, the in-laws blame her father. It takes some time and perspective before the reason behind Pooja’s death is discovered.

This is not a who-dunnit story uncovering the mystery behind Pooja’s death. This is a story about a young girl in a patriarchal society where teenage innocence has little place. In what follows a series of events that result in a tragic end, ‘Pooja’ is a story of a girl, but it’s also more than that. It’s about women through generations, and the misogynistic beliefs that permeate our society. It’s about being a woman in a rural village of Nepal with limited healthcare facilities, and what that means for a birthing woman.

In ‘Pooja’ Deepak Rauniyar’s direction takes the form of a non-linear narrative as we go back-and-forth between the series of events that led to Pooja’s death. The story is divided into three parts: ‘father’, ‘husband’ and ‘mother-in-law’. Rauniyar, in his attempt to show the complex web of decades-old beliefs, patriarchy, casteism, and sexism, beautifully and heartbreakingly captures the victims of these outdated phenomena.

Pooja’s father is a loving man who treats both his daughter and son equally. Then, we realise that it is Pooja’s mother who actually projects misogynistic values as we see her shamelessly favouring her son over Pooja. She hits Pooja, she constantly questions her whereabouts, and instead of rebuking her son for his mistakes, she blames Pooja for everything. Keeping up with the sexism, she also threatens to marry Pooja off, but in a move of rebellion, Pooja decides to make that decision all for herself.

So where does ‘father’ come into all this—the titular character for the first section? Pooja’s father (Prakash Ghimire) is the lens to Pooja’s childhood, through the eyes of someone who genuinely loved her. Ghimire is affectionate as Gaj Bahadur Singh Thakuri—he dons the hat of a father in tune with his daughter’s emotional needs. As soon as the father and daughter duo are together, we can see the parent-child dynamics between them, with Pooja as the troublemaker and Ghimire as the father whose anger fizzles out in the face of love for his daughter.

But it’s not enough because he also doesn’t come running after her when she decides to leave her home in the middle of the night. The stark lack of a role model is also central to Pooja’s arc, and a trustworthy support system is what we see lacking in Pooja’s life. Love is not enough—responsibility goes hand-in-hand with that, and although Pooja’s father, or family, may not be directly responsible for her ultimate demise, we see they handily lay the seeds of doubt, insecurity and a lack of love that forces her to seek that from someone else.

This is where Rumihang comes into play—the boy Pooja marries. Just writing boy, girl and marriage seems criminal, but that is exactly what they are—a naive and immature couple who would be ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ in a modern society. But tragically, a bunch of teenagers have to suit the role of husband and wife, and this is where the story’s narrative delves into the familial roles and dynamics that inevitably form when marriage is in the equation.

An important detail about ‘Pooja’ (the movie) is that the performances in the film are entirely improv—Rauniyar chose to remove any dialogue-based script in the film. Perhaps this is why all the conversations and interactions feel realistic and at times, awkward. The performances successfully manage to show Pooja and Rumihang as a couple that feel deeply unnatural and unsettling. Watching them together feels like watching kids play house with each other. When Pooja and Rumihang visit Pooja’s sister and her husband, there’s a palpable awkwardness on screen that reminds me of all the times we have to struggle to make conversations with someone ages apart from us in maturity. In this ‘Pooja’ feels like experiencing a daily insight into someone’s life instead of watching a movie.

The narrative further delves into the concept of patriarchy as a whole system in the form of Rumihang. Rumihang, who is just a boy himself, is forced to take the responsibility of earning an income to support the family. While Pooja is expected to do all her household chores, and stay at home waiting for her husband to take charge of their life, Rumihang is expected to leave behind his life in search of a job in a foreign country.

Now, this is a short film, and that makes things both easier and difficult for filmmakers. With short films, you have the opportunity to tell a compelling story with a significant social message that can impact the audience without getting bored. Let’s face it, no matter how important a story is there’s always gonna be some people who snooze even before the half-hour mark hits. In the one-hour run time of ‘Pooja’, Rauniyar manages to encapsulate the intricacies of Pooja’s life while fleshing out the main players and events of Pooja’s life. But the limitation of a short film is that the character growth can only reach a certain extent. Pooja, despite being the titular character, feels a little one-dimensional, especially in the face of a serious issue that the movie is tackling.

When Pooja becomes pregnant halfway into the film, we see her character, and priorities stunted as well. This is intentional and especially sad, because she is a teenager at the cusp of influence and change. She is a girl who hasn’t had the opportunity to make a decision for herself, as situations and people around her ascribe her little autonomy. She has little idea about the gravity of becoming a new mother, and regularly neglects her check-up.

There’s also nobody constant in her life to guide her through what is a life-changing event for a woman, as her parents refuse to accept her intercaste marriage to a Rai family, and her husband has decided to leave the country. Although her mother-in-law holds little qualms about their marriage, she’s also the product of an older generation who has little awareness about the safety precautions to be taken for a pregnant woman. She says things like, “Back in our days, women were strong and did all the heavy work,” and asks Pooja to do the tiring household chores. Although she cares about Pooja’s well-being, it is still not enough to prevent her demise.

The final scene of the film brings it all together in an inevitable tragedy. The little seeds of foreshadowing the writing forswears come together in a scene that critiques the lack of healthcare facilities, and the lack of health awareness in rural Nepal. As Pooja goes into labour, all the nearby women in the villages gather. There’s just something about watching a group of women come together to help another young one—it is empowering, but there’s no happy end waiting there. Comments like, “Back in the day, we gave birth at home with no medication,” accompany as Pooja—with no anaesthesia whatsoever—pushes the baby out of her.

We can guess what follows. The shaky camerawork perfectly portrays the panic that ensues as Pooja remains unconscious. We also find out that the nearest hospital is too far away, and there’s no transportation. And this is still the reality for many. Too many lose their lives to labour—lives that should’ve never been lost when we have all these advancements in medicine.

Pooja reminds me of Lydia Bennet (from Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’) in a lot of ways. Both are spontaneous, immature teenagers at a time when being young had little place in a judgemental society. Both of them run off with their lovers (Lydia with someone who was a fraud who used her), and both of them lead an unsatisfying life. By the end, it would’ve been nice to see Pooja’s own perspective on the things that happened—the voice to the main character of the story. Rauniyar, from what I can gather from my interpretation, shows Pooja to be the vessel of so many young women and girls who lose their lives to the constraints of societal norms. But it still would’ve given so much depth and emotional value to see the person Pooja as who she is, disconnected from those around her.


Director: Deepak Rauniyar

Cast: Priyansa Singh Thakuri, Aditya Gurung, Prakash Ghimire, Mithila Sharma

Year: 2010

Duration: 58 minutes

Language: Nepali

Available on: YouTube

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