In conversation with Rima Das about Village Rockstars, a small Assamese film about a girl who wants to own a guitar, and which has just won three awards in the recently concluded MAMI film festival Mumbai.
Till 2014, 36-year-old filmmaker Rima Das was one of many struggling actors in Mumbai. She did bit roles, but they were so inconsequential that she can’t even recall them. Then Das decided to tell the story of a group of kids from her village, Chhaygaon in Assam’s Kamrup district. All she had with her then was a camera and the intention of capturing the life she grew up living. Her film is now complete, making her the first woman filmmaker in India to make an entire feature film all by herself.
Das not only wrote and directed Village Rockstars, but also filmed it, did the production design and edited it single-handedly. Her only assistants were a group of six pre-teens whose story she tells in the film, which is now being shown in film festivals across the world and this week won three awards at the MAMI festival in Mumbai, including the Golden Gateway in the India Gold category.
Village Rockstars captures the landscapes and life in Chhaygaon almost like a documentary, but then subtly weaves in the story of a young girl, Dhunnu, and her companions who pass their time with fake music instruments, pretending to be rockstars. Dhunnu’s only dream is to buy herself a real guitar. She works in the village to earn some money. Against the backdrop of an idyllic village life are simmering unfulfilled dreams, be it Dhunnu’s or her widowed mother who works as a weaver trying hard to make ends meet. Village Rockstars moves along at a leisurely pace. Everyday happenings in Dhunnu’s life lead to a compelling coming of age narrative, eventually showing us how her dreams are come true.
In an interview to The Wire, Das spoke about her experience making the film.
What was your motivation behind telling this story and why did you chose to do it alone?
I was a struggling actor in Mumbai for eight years before I decided to make films. I grew up in Assam, but always had an urge to step out and explore myself as an artist beyond the world that I was so familiar with. But life in Mumbai broke me from within. I did not know Hindi and it became a huge obstacle for my acting career – so much so that I sank into depression. I decided to go back home. During my time at home, I realised that there was so much beauty around me that I had failed to see. As a young girl in Chhaygaon, I grew up swimming in the rivers and climbing trees and being close to nature, but I had forgotten what it really brought to my life. When I bought my first camera in 2010. it was with the intention of launching myself, because nobody else was doing it. I did my first short film called Pratha about a girl coming of age. I absolutely enjoyed the process of shooting. You can say that this film was my way of going back to my roots. Hiring a film crew was out of question because I did not have the money for it. Plus, making Village Rockstars all by myself gave me the freedom to do it at the pace I wanted to, so I thought why not.
What inspired you to tell this story about kids in the village?
I shot my first feature film Man with the Binoculars in 2014 in my village. I saw people living in deprivation; people rising above their everyday problems and moving on with life. Once, during a festival in my village, I saw these kids playing with a plastic keyboard and guitar. They had made a medley of a few famous songs. I just joked that I would one day make a film on them. After that, they followed me for weeks asking when I was going to start making the film and just like that, I began to shoot.
The cinematic language of the film is very simple and its pace is almost realistic. What were your biggest challenges while shooting it?
I shot it over a span of four years, capturing seasons, natural calamities and the growing years of the kids who are not professional actors, but live in Chhaygaon itself. I would go around mounting my camera and letting life happen. During the floods, we’d get on top of trees, strap the camera onto a branch and record. Everything was being shot in natural light and at one point, I did not even have a sound recorded to capture the dialogues. I was simultaneously writing it and there were times when I felt absolutely helpless because things would go out of hand. We were not prepared for the floods that came in 2015. We still shot through all that water and made it part of the narrative. The camera would get damaged every now and then and we just had to wait for it to start again. I had only one camera, and there were times I thought I would never be able to complete this. Also, children grow very fast and I had to be keep that in mind. Even so, with the help of my cousin who assisted me and the kids who were always up for a challenge, we’d shoot. We took it one day at a time. All I had to do was surrender to the space and the end result was a film.
The film is about the struggles of a growing girl whose freedom is often curtailed in a village environment. Is that something you experienced as well?
I was like one of the boys while growing up. When I got my first period, I’d still run all around the place while older neighbours would try to pin me down and even lock me into a room. It is the same with Dhunnu (in the film). She comes of age but that doesn’t kill the child in her. She wants to own a guitar; that’s her only dream. She’s vulnerable, innocent and is chasing a dream that is so important for her. She has a special relationship with everyone – from her mother to her brother to even her pet goat. What I’ve shown in the film is just a reflection of what life in the village is.
How did you manage to take the film to international festivals?
The film was recommended at the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) in 2015 and we got an editing grant through them. It was also sent to the Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) through which the film was screened at Cannes. I sent it to a few festivals once the final cut was done. Fortunately, the final film premiered at Toronto.
How has an international audience like the one at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) responded to the film?
My film is based in a world that an international audience has no idea about. There’s a universal image of India across the globe and most of our cinema endorses that image. Our films rarely show life in northeast India, that too at such a grassroots level. I was happy I could do that. At Toronto, people were just amazed by the simplicity of it. My influences have been filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kirostami and I was very conscious of keeping the narrative very realistic while shooting the film.
The kids in the film have stepped out of Assam for the first time thanks to Village Rockstars. Is the world of cinema an entirely new experience for them?
Oh absolutely! Many of these kids live under extreme circumstances and their families barely manage to make ends meet. The floods in Assam every year destroy their produce and it’s a life people living urban spaces can’t even imagine. Watching themselves on the big screen in Mumbai was nothing short of a fairy tale for them. I would have never been able to bring this film together if not for them. They were patient and extremely devoted to my story and that honesty shows in the film.
There are few women filmmakers in India and fewer who make films independently. You have set an example. How do you plan to take it forward?
I never used to watch films as a kid. I would draw out my dreams and expect them to turn into miracles. Today, I know that if one has the honest intention to do something, you can do it even if no one really believes in you. There are many stories I want to tell. Not just from Assam, but also from Mumbai, which is my second home and a city that really taught me the realities of life. I’m happy Village Rockstars has given me a platform from where my work will now be taken seriously.
Divya Unny has been a journalist for the past 12 years, and now freelances as a writer, actor and director within the Indian film and theatre community. Her work can be followed on https://www.facebook.com/