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Breaking the Silence: ‘Pushtaini’ Tackles the Taboo of Sexual Exploitation in Indian Cinema

Our society has yet to come to terms with the sad reality that sexual exploitation is not gender-specific. Perhaps that’s why our mainstream cinema either ignores the sexual manipulation of boys or considers it as a device to generate some humour. For a change, “Pushtaini,” a small film with a big purpose, begins on a film set where a struggling actor, languishing on a couch, wrestles with his lines.

Like an emaciated cat trying to roar like a tiger, Aryan Shaw (Vinod Rawat) is fumbling to hide the simple mountain boy Bhupinder or Bhuppi from the camera. Soon, we discover that his set is perhaps purposefully designed into the script as his launchpad, for Bhuppi has come through a painful process of ‘casting couch,’ a euphemism for sexual favors in exchange for work.

The slimy line producer has a video that can shut Bhuppi’s career down, but somehow the frustration of getting blackmailed breeds in him the natural flair that was missing from his performance. It is something Rajkumar Rao, playing the hero in the film within the film, advises him to bring out, but till then Aryan and Bhuppi were two different people grappling with their realities.

To escape the trap, Bhuppi treads back to his ancestral land in Uttarakhand. The scenic vistas open the crevices of the past in the young man’s mind that made him run away from his reality to the city of dreams. As the purpose of the title starts to make sense, we find that Bhuppi is suffering from deep-rooted daddy issues, further complicated by a sister who feels that he let the family down and an aunt who holds him responsible for his father’s unnatural demise. There is also a will that is in the hands of his father’s employer Yashpal (Mithilesh Pandey), whom Bhuppi doesn’t want to face because of a childhood trauma that hasn’t healed and perhaps created flaws in his personality. It creates an emotional cesspool where the soundscape and the landscape become integral to storytelling.

In the journey to find his truth, Bhuppi finds a co-passenger in Dimple, a life coach (Rita Heer), who is also seeking answers to questions that have been troubling her since childhood. While Bhuppi avoids intoxication, fearing it strips away the layers that he has covered himself with, Dimple indulges in weed and vodka to cope with the gravity of the situation and the harsh landscapes they traverse.

The film finds its humour and levity in Hemant (Hemant Pandey), a taxi driver and Bhuppi’s childhood friend, who drives him and Dimple on this journey of self-discovery.

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. Hemant is a prototype of those small-town men who judge women by their food and lifestyle choices, bringing some comic relief to the otherwise intense narrative.

Rawat has not only played Bhuppi/Aryan with gentle intensity but has also directed, produced, and co-written “Pushtaini.” While finding answers to Bhuppi’s quest, he touches upon issues of unemployment, migration, and economic hardships in the hills, making people prone to different kinds of manipulation without making a show of it.

Like his property, Bhuppi’s problem is also ‘Pushtaini.’ People on the margins faced and hid sexual exploitation then; they are uneasy to talk about it now. Time and space don’t seem to matter. They seem destined to suffer and move on with a straight face. Rawat has depicted this helplessness and reconfiguration in Bhuppi by weaving the events into a gripping narrative that doesn’t seek mercy for being an independent film.

In terms of technique, for a large part, “Pushtaini” gives the feel of a good, personal student film. It has a beating heart, but the loose ends in writing and acting have not been properly soldered. At times, the rawness in expressing emotions and language works to the film’s advantage, but then there are sequences where low-hanging metaphors are plucked for effect.

That said, “Pushtaini” is better than many decorative products on display in theatres at present. One hopes it finds a way through the heartless distribution system that is skewed towards tentpoles and where ancestral hold on the system still works.

“Pushtaini” is currently running in theatres, offering audiences a rare, heartfelt glimpse into issues often swept under the rug of Indian cinema. This film dares to scratch beneath the surface, revealing the layers of complexity and pain that come with the subject of sexual exploitation across genders.