How Pavitra Chalam and Akshay Shankar conceived a documentary that narrates the story of a baby battling hydrocephalus
Seven years ago, when Pavitra Chalam was researching for a project, she stumbled upon a photograph that was arresting, almost unreal. It was of a baby girl with a 36-inch head (double the usual size). Pavitra, a documentary filmmaker who tells stories of children with complex needs, felt compelled to know more about this baby, Roona Begum, from a little village, Jirania Khala, in Tripura. Pavitra and her co-filmmaker, Akshay Shankar, decided that it would be their next. With their team they left from Bengaluru to a hospital in Delhi, where Roona was awaiting surgery with her parents.
This was how the documentary short Rooting for Roona, now streaming on Netflix, began. It was screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, Tryon Film Festival in North Carolina and South Asian Film Festival of Orlando. It was also one of six films chosen by the Women in Film Finishing Film grant in 2019.
The baby’s photograph had captured the attention of national and international media. Roona and hydrocephalus (a condition, wherein cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in brain cavities, enlarging the head) were a hot topic. The toddler had a successful surgery. With that, the media frenzy ended. But Pavitra, Akshay and their team decided to be with Roona and her family. An assistant director, Ananya Roy, spoke their dialect and acted as a liaison between the family and doctors, media among others. Roona’s battle with hydrocephalus was not over. No one knew if or when it would.
“Usually, for a documentary, you can pre-empt certain things and make a plan. But in this case, right from day one, we had to tell ourselves anything can happen,” says Akshay.
“The end we had in mind was seeing her walk. That was everyone’s dream,” adds Pavitra.
However, it was not a fairytale. Roona passed away in 2017 when she was five and a half. “It was devastating. She was a month away from one more surgery that might have cured her,” says Pavitra.
Rooting for Roona, however, is neither a sob-story nor a documentary about hydrocephalus itself. “Every living day was a hard-won victory for Roona and her young parents [Fatima Khatun and Abdul Rahman]. She was living on impossibility,” says Pavitra. The documentary, hence, is a tale of inspiration, she adds.
A love story
The makers say that Rooting for Roona, without doubt, is their toughest project. It was, in many ways, also their most memorable.
“We are a small production house. So, it was difficult to get funding, assemble a team. But we got a lot of support from within the team and outside,” says Akshay, “We had to beg, borrow, steal to stay in the dingiest of places so that we could spend another day with the family.”
For Pavitra, the documentary is more personal. She was pregnant during the post-production phase, a few months after Roona’s death. “In a way, Roona was my first child. The nine months of pregnancy coincided with the film’s post-production,” she says, “I also spent a lot of time with Fatima. I could understand deeply her feelings for Roona. This documentary… it is a love story between a mother and daughter; a love story between us and this little girl.”