Missing Village Rockstars from Assam at Oscars 2019

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Village Rockstars, India’s official Best Foreign Film entry for the 2019 Oscars, didn’t make it to the final nominations list. Critically hailed in India and on the international stage, the movie is a fine piece of work by Rima Das who directed, wrote, produced, edited, production designed, and shot it all by herself over a period of 3-4 years.

This was her second film. Even though Rima wasn’t formally trained in filmmaking, the idea gained roots as well as wings. She didn’t have a storyboard either. All she had was instinct and the drive. The story of her protagonist Dhanu is universal as much as it is personal. The end result breaks a few ‘industry’ rules in the process. Rima subtly points her lens towards societal norms which apply to girls, making it a compelling commentary with a solid voice.

Dhanu is inspired by the all-boys band or the village rockstars, and despite hardships, barriers and natural calamities, dreams of possessing her own real guitar. Shot in documentary style, Village Rockstars captures its characters in a natural form amid different seasons, within the village setting. The story is simple and observatory in its narrative and subtly shifts the focus to complex topics of gender norms.

Rima had spent almost 8-9 years in Mumbai struggling, looking unsuccessfully for acting jobs. She had “lost touch with her soul” and suffered depression. So she decided to return to her roots in Assam and put herself back together by making movies in pristine surroundings, aided by her mother’s food. She spent two years making her first movie Man with the Binoculars: Antardrishti (2016), hoping to realise her acting career. This is when Rima realised what she was missing in Mumbai, while chasing ambition.

She found what was lost after a chance encounter with children lead her to observe these village ‘rockstars’ in their natural setting. Through them, she learned how to unlearn, see beauty in ordinary, do simple things and rediscover her own village.

Her own childhood inspired her to create the spunky Dhanu, she reveals with a heady giggle, “My mother used to beat me up. I was very naughty” at the first-even Indian screening of Village Rockstars at MAMI (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) in October 2017. She follows it up with a quick defence: “I am what I am because of my mom.”

It is easy to see how her effervescent personality would have helped her collaboration with the children and enabled her to create a fictional story around their daily lives. Their parents weren’t very happy but they allowed it, the rookie crew have now formed a strong bond. The movie couldn’t have been made without them, says Rima. At the conference, she patiently waits for the entire team to arrive on stage before she starts speaking. She watches indulgently as Bhanita Das, the child actor who played Dhanu, insists on unpacking and holding the mock guitar which they have carried from Assam, for the audience.

As a child, Rima watched Bollywood movies like everyone else. Her Mumbai stint expanded her horizons. Piquantly, she first felt she could attempt a movie after watching Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. “Then I started watching international makers like Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky,” she says.

Although influenced and inspired by filmmakers across the world, she was sparked by her own idea, “I forgot everything while filming, and I shot just what I saw. It had a documentary feel because that’s how I viewed life in the village and my characters.” Her style developed naturally, on the go. “Nothing was planned, and yet I was clear that’s exactly how I wanted it captured. I am not bound by any theories as I am not trained. Whatever I learnt is by watching movies.” Her production company is called Flying River Films.

Rima’s influence comes with tangible results. Similar to her guru Ray in Pather Panchali, she won the Best Feature Film at National Awards for Village Rockstars.

This year, Short Film Period. End of Sentence., an external lens on Indian women and periods, has been nominated. It has been directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, an Iranian-American film director based in Los Angeles. While it comes loaded with sparkling and good intentions, as a creative piece, it falls, well, short. Why Village Rockstars, Rima’s visually lush and poetic take on contemporary rural India, didn’t make the cut we will never know. Meanwhile, Rima has moved on to Bulbul Can Sing, a movie about three teenagers and acceptance of their own sexual identities. This director continues to sing her tune, Oscar or no Oscar.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women, and social equity.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

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