Rooting for Roona review: Netflix documentary underscores flaws in Indian healthcare system at grassroots level

The documentary sensitively captures not only Roona’s unusual case, but also the impact and stress on a young married couple on raising the child.

Udita Jhunjhunwala October 16, 2020 10:39:59 IST
Rooting for Roona review: Netflix documentary underscores flaws in Indian healthcare system at grassroots level

A still from Rooting for Roona

Language: English

An image of an infant with an enlarged skull, shot in April 2013 by a news photographer, caught the attention of the documentary filmmaking team that is behind Rooting for Roona. The 41-minute documentary film captures the story of a child born into a humble home in Jirania Khola, Tripura. She is called Jannat at home, and Roona Begum by everyone else.

Directors Pavitra Chalam and Akshay Shankar opened their film in April 2013, when Roona was 16 months old. Fatema, her mother, says she always wished for a daughter because “a daughter knows her mother’s sorrow”. Roona’s young husband is a daily wage labourer in a brick factory.

Roona lies on a mat on the floor, her 36-inch head too heavy to be supported. Her eyes are rolled up. She does not sit, crawl, and speak, and it is hard to feed her. 

Born with hydrocephalus – a condition where there is an abnormal build up of fluid in the head, which can damage the brain – Roona needs timely medical treatment, which is not available in Tripura. In the village, Roona is the object of curiosity. The “girl with the big head," the “alien” whose story attracted the photojournalist, and resulted in the image that set off an avalanche of sympathy. Contributions, crowd-funding (it was apparently India's largest crowd-funded non-fiction film in 2013), and the offer of free medical treatment in Delhi followed.

The same image also propelled Chalam to start documenting Roona’s story. From the village in Tripura to the high-tech corridors and operating theatres of Fortis Hospital, Gurgaon, Rooting for Roona tracks the numerous surgeries the child undergoes to have a real shot at staying alive.

Five surgeries and five months later, there is a remarkable difference in her head size. Over the following years, the directors keep returning to her home and cataloguing Roona’s progress.

Through this family’s experience, we understand how ill-equipped the local-level healthcare system is, and how illiteracy and lack of means affect a child’s chances of survival when medical intervention is delayed.

The film sensitively captures not only Roona’s unusual case, but also the impact and stress on a young married couple (the father, Abdul, was 17 and mother 22 when Roona was born), which challenges even Fatema’s unconditional love for her first-born. 

Like her mother, Roona shows extraordinary spirit. The film draws you in and has you rooting for Roona and the thousands of other parents struggling to give their child a fighting chance at a healthy life.

Rooting for Roona is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: ***1/2

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