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Emotional Landscapes and Unspoken Traumas: A Review of ‘Pushtaini’

Our society has yet to come to terms with the harsh reality that sexual exploitation does not discriminate by gender. Perhaps it is this societal blindspot that leads mainstream cinema to either ignore the sexual manipulation of boys or to treat it as a mere punchline. In a significant departure, the indie film “Pushtaini” tackles this subject head-on, beginning on an evocative note on a film set where a struggling actor wrestles with his lines on a weathered couch.

Aryan Shaw (Vinod Rawat), trying to conceal his true self—simple mountain boy Bhupinder or Bhuppi—is akin to an underfed cat attempting to roar like a tiger. The story quickly pulls back the veil to show how Bhuppi has reached this juncture through a painful ordeal involving the ‘casting couch,’ a euphemism for trading sexual favors for professional opportunities. The duplicitous line producer has incriminating video evidence that could end Bhuppi’s budding career. However, the constant blackmail ironically sharpens an innate talent within him, which Rajkumar Rao’s character in the film-within-the-film urges him to unleash. Until this revelation, Aryan and Bhuppi seemed like two disparate personas.

As Bhuppi seeks to extricate himself from this toxic environment, he retreats to his ancestral home in the breathtaking landscapes of Uttarakhand. The panoramic vistas not only offer a visual delight but also serve as a catalyst, unlocking deep-seated memories that drove Bhuppi to the city of dreams in the first place. The film’s title, “Pushtaini,” starts to resonate as we delve into the protagonist’s complicated web of familial relationships. Bhuppi’s troubles stem from unresolved ‘daddy issues,’ which are more intricate than what audiences might have experienced in movies like “Animal.” His sister sees him as a failure, while an aunt holds him culpable for their father’s untimely death. To add another layer of turmoil, his father’s will is controlled by Yashpal (Mithilesh Pandey), a figure from Bhuppi’s traumatic past that he dreads confronting. The narrative deftly uses the scenic environment and soundscape to further the emotional storytelling.

On his path to self-rediscovery, Bhuppi crosses paths with Dimple (Rita Heer), a life coach also grappling with unanswered questions from her past.

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. While Bhuppi avoids intoxication because it strips away his protective layers, Dimple turns to weed and vodka, finding her own way to cope with their challenging milieu.

Humor and lighthearted moments make their way into the story through Hemant (Hemant Pandey), a taxi driver and Bhuppi’s old friend, who takes them on this spiritual journey. Hemant’s character exemplifies small-town stereotypes, particularly in how he judges women based on their lifestyle choices, offering a slice of realism and mild comic relief.

Notably, Rawat has imbued his dual character, Bhuppi/Aryan, with a gentle intensity. Besides his compelling portrayal, Rawat has also taken on the roles of director, producer, and co-writer of “Pushtaini.” In attempting to find answers to Bhuppi’s quest, the film also subtly addresses themes like unemployment, migration, and financial hardships plaguing the hill communities, highlighting how these factors leave people susceptible to various forms of exploitation. The film manages to touch upon these societal issues without appearing didactic.

Bhuppi’s problem, much like his family property, is ‘Pushtaini’—inherited and lingering. The marginalized have historically faced and concealed their sexual exploitation, a painful truth that time and space have yet to alter. They endure and persevere with unflinching resolve. Rawat intricately weaves these elements of helplessness and survival into a compelling narrative, distinguishing “Pushtaini” as a gripping indie film that doesn’t seek pity despite its independent status.

From a technical standpoint, “Pushtaini” often resembles a personal student film brimming with heart, although it occasionally falters in writing and acting cohesion. The rawness of emotion and language sometimes plays to the film’s advantage, though at other points, overly simplistic metaphors seem forcefully inserted for effect.

Despite these minor flaws, “Pushtaini” is a refreshing departure from the more polished—but often soulless—mainstream offerings currently crowding theaters. One can only hope it navigates the challenging distribution landscape dominated by big-budget productions, underscored by the same ancestral stronghold that the film critiques.

“Pushtaini” is now showing in theaters, presenting a significant milestone in Hindi and Indian cinema that bravely addresses untold stories.