Rima Das, in her mid-thirties, giggles over the phone from Los Angeles. It’s only been a few hours since the 65th National Awards were announced, and she is trying to recollect the trajectory of her small film, shot in a sleepy corner of Assam. “We had won several awards at the Mumbai Film Festival last October,” she tries to recall the names of the awards, but fails, and laughs.
Village Rockstars, awarded the Best Film at the 65th National Awards, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, and was then screened at the Mumbai Film Festival the next month. It created a ripple back then itself. At the latter, it won the Golden Gateway Award for Best Film, and a congratulatory tweet from almost every film critic who watched it. In the six months that followed, it has travelled across the world to no less than 50 film festivals.
What made this Assamese movie, shot on a shoestring budget, in a language people often club as “no different from Bengali”, such a tremendous success? Probably, the fact that it developed organically over four years, was shot on a handheld camera, by a woman who has had no formal training in films. Or the fact that it used a cast of non-professional actors, sourced from the village of Kalardiya in Chaygaon, where it was shot.
Or maybe, simply because of what it is about: 10-year-old Dhunu, who dreams of forming her own rock band, and goes in search of an electric guitar. Das beautifully weaves a narrative around this storyline, while also touching upon other issues only relatable to in rural India — the ravages of flood, untimely death, forgotten promises and shattered dreams. “Right after people see the movie in festivals around the world, they come to me with tears in their eyes,” says Das, who is in the US for another screening of her movie. She never went to film school but was always enamoured by films. In Chaygaon, where she grew up, films were something to be watched, not made and definitely not learned. And yet, Das, who trained herself from videos off the internet, moved to Mumbai in 2003, to make something of her dream. There, her exposure to independent world cinema inspired her to start making films.
When she was shooting for her first film in Assam, Man With Binoculars, then also a one-woman-army, she came across a group of children in Chaygaon, performing on stage at a Bihu function, with a guitar-shaped cardboard cut-out. “The children were growing up in poverty, but they knew how to celebrate life,” she says. The idea of Village Rockstars came to her then, and over the years, she wrote the story as it evolved. Das used the children who she saw performing at Chaygaon as her main actors. “They literally learned how to act under open skies,” says Das.
And it was under these skies that Das also grew up. A tomboy — and the daughter of a school teacher — Das spent most of her childhood scaling trees and playing truant with the village boys. In Village Rockstars, Bhanita Das — the young girl who plays Dhunu — reminded Das of her younger days. “Bhanita shaped the movie. I actually never had plans for a female lead, nor did I force it. But Bhanita’s personality was so overpowering that the story asked for it,” says Das.
It’s been almost 30 years since an Assamese film won the Best Film at the National Awards. In 1987, Jahnu Barua’s Halodia Choraye Baodhan Khaye had won. Off late, the industry seems to be going through a slump — but for the occasional gems such as Village Rockstars, or Utpal Borpujari’s Ishu (which won the award for the Best Assamese Film). Das believes that focusing on stories closer home is the key. “It’s really great that the jury has recognised a movie that isn’t Bollywood; there is so much more out there,” she says.