I watched Village Rockstars (2017) last week, nearly a year after its premiere; after it has already won numerous National and International awards besides of course, receiving a rousing welcome from Assam, the home state of the director Rima Das. And watching the film in the midst of the raging controversy around the exercise of the National Citizen Registry (NCR) by the government of Assam made the filmic experience that much more poignant.
Village Rockstars opens with breathtakingly beautiful views of the Assamese countryside – the lush green fields, rivers and unobstructed views of skies, reminiscent of the Russian master Alexander Dovzhenko’s masterpiece, Earth (1930). Very soon into the film, I found myself easing into my chair. Oxygen was the first thought that came into my mind. The scantily populated landscapes allow you to breathe. You can feel and smell the fresh air. The wide frames allow ample space for our eyes to move and explore. Organic was the second thought as the film proceeded at a languorous pace in sync with the rhythm of life in pastoral Assam. There’s time for play, lolling about in puddles of rainwater, getting lost, climbing trees and just daydreaming. And the third feeling was of rootedness. The film looks at lives of people deeply connected to their habitat – the soil, the rivers, the flora and fauna and the culture.
The central character is a ten-year old girl Dhunu, who lives in a village called Chaygaon with her widowed mother and brother. The film sets out its premise right in the beginning. While helping her mother sell snacks at a local event, Dhunu is mesmerized by the performance of a local band as are her all boy group of friends. They proceed to form a make-believe band playing with guitars carved out of Styrofoam. She too makes one for herself and thus begins her journey to becoming a village rockstar. But having a real guitar is a distant dream for her. Her single mother struggles to make ends meet. Soon, we learn that she lost her father to the floods that devastate Assam annually. The theme of achieving one’s dream against all odds is not new but it is the minimalism, the lack of sentimentality and the gentle humor that that sets the film apart.
The film is shot in documentary style and doesn’t carry with it the burden of a century and more of cinema. The director explores the theme naturally rather than from storytelling conventions. Not tutored in any film school, her films are her film school, says Rima. And you can very well see her evolution in the film. Yet, there are unmistakable influences and dedications– Dhunu is the Durga and the Mrinmoyee of Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) and Teen Kanya (1961) respectively. She’s the irrepressible tomboy played beautifully by young Banita Das, younger cousin of the filmmaker.
What really makes the film path-breaking and inspiring is the story behind its making. Rima Das is the sole creator of the film. In what is a remarkable feat, she has written, directed, shot, edited, art directed and produced the film. She had an assistant and trained her actors to record the sound. And herein, lies the significance of this film especially for a fund-starved nation like India where the state, despite its ample wealth, has abdicated its role in supporting cinema. In this sense, the real village rockstar is Rima Das herself. She is as tenacious as Dhunu, who driven by the desire for owning a guitar decides to earn money by running small errands for her neighbors that includes climbing trees to get coconuts. She hides every coin and rupee in a bamboo pole. Rima likewise works with economy, both off and on screen. The film is shot hand-held with a SLR camera and a mounted microphone. Making her home in the village Chaygaon as the base, she began shooting with little or no funds, one crew member and a cast full of non-actors. With Village Rockstars, Rima definitely deserves to be the poster girl of the digital revolution and its promised democratization.
As the film unfolds, one can see why Rima, who has made a feature and a short before, decided to go solo on her third film. The story itself is spread over several seasons and records the hardships people face due to annual floods without any succour from the state. Shooting in her village with a crew that’s part family and part neighbours, made it possible for Rima to work over a long period. Having a young and enthusiastic crew meant she was free from the problem of obtaining actor dates and star tantrums. In fact, Rima seems to have hit upon the ideal way of filmmaking, wholly independent and self-reliant. This is quite a dramatic turnabout for her given that just a few years ago she was a struggling actor in Bombay, fighting depression in a city ‘where she lost her soul’ and re-discovered herself upon return to her village where she had grown up, rebelled and struggled. The making of the film served as an antidote not only to the toxicity of living in a big city but also working in the mainstream film industry, which for most part is far removed from real lives and concerns but most importantly is highly racist, classicist and misogynistic both on and off screen.
One area where Rima has excelled is in getting natural performances from her crew of non-actors. She says she spent a lot of time with her cast members, making them comfortable to the extent that they became the co-creators. In the post film Q&A at the MAMI film festival, Rima says that there was no prior planning but minutes later when asked if her story was also evolving, she says she didn’t veer much from her plan. We have seen this combination of plan and non-plan in the docu-fiction work of Abbas Kiarostami, Federico Fellini and closer to home in the works of Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul. They all worked without storyboards and let their films evolve organically.
The sound design in the film also deserves a mention. Many a film have been lost to excesses and over-processing in sound and music but not here. Soundscapes are as economical as the visuals.
In an increasingly conflicted world of ours, the function of cinema is also to make people grow empathy to the ‘others’ with different beliefs and life rhythms from ours. Village Rockstars brings us close to the people of Chaygaon and gives us a glimpse of Assam, a state that has been beleaguered politically, socially and environmentally for decades now. And the film does that subtly without making any explicit political commentary.
One is now eagerly awaiting Rima’s new film, which is gearing up for its international premiere. This time it’s a teenage love story and I’m sure that I, at least, am eager to fall in love again.
Assamese, Drama, Color