“I’m trying to understand boys,” we hear Pushpa Rawat say at a certain point in her film Mod . She is replying to one of her interlocutors, who wants to know why this earnest young ‘didi’ has been turning up for months, camera in hand, at the Pratap Nagar water tank in Ghaziabad where they hang out.

The boy she addresses doesn’t scoff at her. Instead he says with heartbreaking matter-of-factness: “Here, you will only find those whom no one understands.”

Rawat’s patient, moving film is a testament to her scrupulous effort to understand a particular set of boys: the ones who gather every day at the tanki , a few minutes from the place where she lives with her family.

Like her poignant, powerful first film, Nirnay ( Decision , 2012, for which Rawat shared directorial credit with Anupama Srinivasan), Mod is not exactly ethnography, nor journalism, nor autobiography. Rawat belongs to the same world as her characters, and yet she is not wholly of it. The camera in her hand (as one of her friends points out in Nirnay ) has gained her some distance from her lower-middle class Ghaziabad milieu. And if in Nirnay she brought her very particular intense, serious-minded scrutiny to bear upon her closest female friends, her ex-boyfriend, his parents and her own, with Mod , Rawat turns her gaze a little further outward.

Her subjects here are not people she knew before she decided to make a film about them. But she has a connection with the boys at the tanki — largely school dropouts who spend their time playing cards and doing drugs. Rawat’s younger brother frequented the place, and sometimes still does. This might be why the group does not respond to Rawat with the belligerence or sexual swagger I imagine they might have shown another young woman with a camera. Yet the film makes it clear that they remain ambivalent about her presence and her project, and the camera itself.

Some worry that a visual record of them engaged in ‘disreputable’ activities would jeopardise their present or future. In fact Rawat starts her film with voices, talking about whether the camera is capturing their faces. “She’s only shooting our hands,” says one, and then we see the hands tossing the cards down as the boys decide how many hundreds of rupees they’re betting.

But the other aspect of ambivalence arises from the inability to see themselves as legitimate subjects of inquiry. There’s the boy who describes himself and his tanki cohort as “third class”, and the other who calls them “garbage” (an association underlined by the trash that actually accumulates around the tank). “Why don’t you go interview some other people, some good people?” says another. “What is it that bothers you? Do you think I will misuse it?” asks Rawat. “Why are you doing it at all?” comes the answer.

The reversal of the gaze — the woman behind the camera and the young men in front of it — is soon so normalised that it feels like the least important thing about Mod . This is not to deny that there are moments when Rawat lets her vulnerability show.

When she says it has been her “dream” to work with the boys at the water tank, they laugh. But she carries on, not to be put off: “Don’t you have a dream?” The reply comes couched in cynical humour, but it has the ring of despondency: “My dream is that from tomorrow, I won’t come to the water tank.”

The tanki emerges as a sort of negative identity, a place that the boys gravitate to because they feel they have nowhere else to go. What Rawat movingly captures is their sense of being stuck. Clear-eyed enough to see they’re at a dead end, they cannot see a way out. If Nirnay focused our attention on the self-perpetuating cycle of young women’s lives, of marriages and motherhood closing off all other options, then Mod reveals exactly how stultifying the options are for poor urban young men. If they fail — as so many do — to extract some value from the rigid, unsympathetic, often un-educative school system, then what options does this country offer them?

In some ways, Mod might be seen as a contemporary update on Rahul Roy’s When Four Friends Meet (2000), which also focused on a group of school dropouts growing up in the National Capital Region (and which Roy followed up in 2013 with another film about the same young men). But here the personal documentary reveals how much it is shaped by the filmmaker’s own persona. As the older, better-educated man, Roy received an uncomplicated respect from his Jahangirpuri subjects, and perhaps that status also allowed him to draw them out on such things as sex and girls and notions of masculinity. Rawat, being a woman, and much closer to these boys in age and class, does not command authority in the same way, nor is it easy for her to broach the topic of romance or sex. She remains the outsider, uncertain but always empathetic, curious but never prurient.

But the lack of authority is not the same as the lack of an authorial voice. That, Rawat has in spades. And it can only gain from her openness to new experience.

Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi; @chhotahazri