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“Pushtaini: A Riveting Glimpse into Gender-Agnostic Exploitation in Film and Society”

Our society has long grappled with the uncomfortable reality that sexual exploitation transcends gender. This is a truth often neglected by mainstream cinema, which either sidesteps the issue of male sexual abuse or trivializes it for comedic relief. However, the film “Pushtaini,” a seemingly modest indie project with a significant message, dares to break this norm by addressing the darker, unspoken facets of exploitation faced by boys.

“Pushtaini” opens on a film set where Aryan Shaw, portrayed by Vinod Rawat, flounders while trying to deliver his lines. Aryan is attempting to mask his true identity, Bhupinder, or Bhuppi, a simple boy from the mountains, much like a frail cat attempting to roar like a tiger. Eventually, it’s revealed that this film set is strategically integrated into the storyline, serving as a catalyst for Bhuppi’s past trauma involving the ‘casting couch’ – a euphemism for sexual favors exchanged for career opportunities.

As Bhuppi wrestles with the sinister pressures of blackmail by a corrupt line producer, who possesses a compromising video capable of ending his career, his suppressed talent begins to surface. This evolution is triggered in part by Rajkumar Rao, who plays the lead in the “film within the film” and encourages Bhuppi to tap into his intrinsic abilities. Initially, Bhuppi and Aryan exist as two separate entities – an actor hiding behind a persona – but the coerced blend of his identities spurs a transformative performance.

To evade the clutches of his tormentor, Bhuppi returns to his ancestral home in Uttarakhand, where the breathtaking landscape triggers a flood of memories, revealing the painful reasons why he fled to chase city dreams. The title “Pushtaini” gradually gains significance as we uncover the familial and emotional burdens Bhuppi carries. He faces the weight of his father’s unresolved issues, the bitterness of a sister who accuses him of betraying the family, and the blame from an aunt who sees him as responsible for his father’s untimely death. Adding to his woes is a will controlled by his late father’s employer, Yashpal (Mithilesh Pandey), a figure from Bhuppi’s traumatic childhood past.

Bhuppi finds a companion in Dimple, a life coach played by Rita Heer, who is also on a quest to confront her inner demons.

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. While Bhuppi shuns intoxication to maintain his fragile facade, Dimple turns to weed and vodka as a crutch against her daunting reality. Their journey through the picturesque Uttarakhand is made lighter and more humorous by Hemant, a taxi driver and Bhuppi’s childhood friend, superbly enacted by Hemant Pandey. Hemant’s character, a quintessential small-town man, adds levity to the film with his judgmental yet endearing quirks about women’s choices.

Vinod Rawat not only delivers a compelling portrayal of Bhuppi/Aryan but also undertook multiple roles behind the scenes, including directing, producing, and co-writing the script. “Pushtaini” skillfully navigates through unemployment, migration, and economic struggles endemic to the hills, highlighting how these vulnerabilities leave people susceptible to various forms of exploitation, without indulging in melodrama.

The film aptly names Bhuppi’s troubles ‘Pushtaini,’ reflecting the inherited nature of his issues. Historically, individuals on the fringes have faced and concealed sexual exploitation and continue to do so, trapped in a cycle of suffering and silence. Rawat captures this resigned endurance and transformation in Bhuppi through a narrative that remains compelling without pleading for empathy, despite its indie film constraints.

Technically, “Pushtaini” resembles a sophisticated student film, with a raw, beating heart at its core. Despite the narrative thread occasionally fraying, the film’s unpolished expression of emotions often works to its benefit. However, there are moments where cumbersome metaphors feel overused to accentuate points.

Despite its minor flaws, “Pushtaini” emerges superior to many overproduced, formulaic films currently in theaters. It is a hopeful narrative that should be championed against a distribution system heavily biased towards high-budget productions dominated by entrenched industry figures.

“Pushtaini” is now showing in theaters.