India’s Academy Award Hopeful :The Tale of a Village 

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Assamese filmmaker Rima Das

Rima Das’ much feted Village Rockstars is a remarkable, ground-breaking ode to her birthplace. That the film has brought Assam, a speck on the world cinema map, under the Oscar spotlight is the icing on the cake

By Saibal Chatterjee

In 2016, even as she was looking for festival and distribution outlets for her first narrative feature, Antardrishti (Man with the Binoculars), self-taught Assamese filmmaker Rima Das was in the midst of her sophomore production, Village Rockstars, a self-financed work that still had no clear future. She travelled to Cannes for a market screening of Man with the Binoculars but Village Rockstars, which was already in the works, never came up in any conversation that the young filmmaker had there.

Later that year, on the way back from an unrelated event, I swung by her home in Chhaygaon, not very far from Assam’s capital city of Guwahati, for a lunch. Das showed me some footage of the under-production film. Even in that raw, unedited state, Village Rockstars, produced, written, directed, lensed and edited singlehandedly, looked amazingly luminous: it was fresh and spontaneous, vividly evocative of an entire place and culture. I remember exhorting Das to complete the film at the earliest for it had the obvious potential to go places. Village Rockstars is now in the best foreign-language film Academy Award race as India’s official nomination.

The final shape that Village Rockstars assumed only confirmed the early optimism. Pure, beautiful and liberating, it is a visually stunning and emotionally uplifting piece of cinema. There is not a moment in the film that would suggest that it has been made on a shoestring budget without any external support.

Das’ journey from Kalardiya village in northeast India, a part of the subcontinent that usually struggles to find space on the national canvas, let alone at international level, has been nothing short of phenomenal. She had relocated to Mumbai to make a career as an actress. But she soon realized that the obstacles would be too difficult to surmount, so she turned to filmmaking, armed with knowledge acquired from voraciously consuming the works of world cinema masters. Village Rockstars went on to win India’s National Award, the Golden Lotus, for the best film of the year—the first Assamese title in nearly three decades to do so.

In 2017, Village Rockstars, made with a cast of amateurs drawn from in and around Das’ village, went to the world’s premier film festival as part of the ‘Hong Kong Goes to Cannes’ programme, a pitching platform for four cherry-picked Asian works in progress.

From there on, one thing led to another and Village Rockstars surfaced in the program of the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival. The story of an impoverished village girl who dreams of buying a guitar and forming her own music band with the boys she hangs out with struck an instant chord halfway across the world. The power of simple storytelling is writ large on the film, which, according to Das, “took 150 days of shooting over a period of four years”.

Village Rockstars

The story that Village Rockstars narrates, says Das, is entirely fictional, but the activities and chores that the characters are depicted as doing in the film are taken from the actors’ lived experiences. Das uses her camera as an unobtrusive observer looking in on the village folk as their life unfolds and capturing that unique rhythms of the place, complete with its intense struggle with the annual floods that threaten both life and property.

Introducing her film before the screening of a 20-minute excerpt from it in Cannes, Das had said: “Village Rockstars germinated when I was shooting my first film (Antardrishti) in the village. I met these amazing children and was blown away by their enthusiasm. I felt I needed to tell their story on the big screen.”

At the heart of Village Rockstars is 10-year-old Dhunu, a girl raised by a widowed mother. “Growing up in poverty and facing repeated natural calamities, she is a tough soul,” Das said. “The influence of her tenacious, non-conformist mother makes her even tougher.”

For Das, who usually works out of Mumbai, Village Rockstars marks a return to her roots. “When I returned to Chhaygaon from Mumbai, these children helped me unlearn everything and reconnect with the soil,” she told the audience in Cannes.

This is what I had written in my review of Village Rockstars, which was released commercially across India’s bigger cities recently:

Forget the multiple richly deserved honors that the film has bagged for these are extraneous to what Village Rockstars represents. The film stands for something that is always under threat: the courage to ignore the reality that life is exceedingly difficult for cinema that is made on the margins of a giant production machinery and recognize that there always are ways out for those who revel in battling the odds, no matter how daunting, and overcoming them.     

Written, directed, produced, edited and shot (on a Canon 5D) by Das, the visually beautiful film represents ‘cottage industry’ cinema of the finest timbre. It is fueled by the same defiant spirit of independence that informs the search of its young protagonist, a girl who dreams, against the odds of privation and prejudice, of acquiring a real guitar and forming a rock band of her own with the boys she is friends with in a remote Assam village.

In a rare development, Village Rockstars, an Assamese film that has emerged from a space far removed from the Indian cinema mainstream, is releasing across the state and in several metropolitan cities of India. In its making, it has pushed many boundaries. Will it, as it unfolds on multiplex screens across the country, kick open the doors that have remained firmly shut on films of its ilk?   

‘Kick open’ is probably too strong an expression to use in the context of this film. It is both gentle and genteel, but it achieves those qualities without having to resort to any sort of artifice. It has raw energy coursing through its images, but the many moments of pure magic that the self-taught filmmaker creates in her second directorial venture stems not so much from constructed approaches to filming as from her refusal to succumb to the lure of easy methods.  

Village Rockstars is a tribute to the place that Das belongs to and a celebration of the indomitability of its people, manifested in the ability of Dhunu (Bhanita Das) and her mother (Basanti Das) to dare to attempt the impossible. Of course, Dhunu is no ordinary village girl. She is poor. She has to contend with gender bias. But she is blissfully unaware of the obstacles in her path thanks to a mother who sees her daughter as an embodiment of the power of womanhood. (www.ndtv.com)

Village Rockstars may not have set the domestic box-office on fire. It wasn’t expected to. Its triumph lies in beating off competition from tent-pole Bollywood productions and earning the right to represent India at the Oscars. Mumbai’s mainstream moviemakers have been rather stingy in coming out in support of a small, independent film propelled solely by passion and self-belief. Village Rockstars may not have the wherewithal to market itself in the lead-up to the Academy Awards. Whether it goes all the way or not, it marks a watershed for Indian independent cinema because it demonstrates that miracles do happen and it is possible to go from a village all the way to a global stage.

 

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