When they first saw the boys from the neighbouring village “make music” with a guitar made of thermocol at a school function, Manabendra Das and Rinku Das thought it was the most “chaliya” (coolest) thing they had ever seen. The two young residents of Dohgaon Kalardiya village in Assam’s Chhaygaon wanted one too for their own performance at their local Bihu toli function. Manabendra, then 13, imagined how impressed their entire village would be. And 14-year-old Rinku thought to himself that this is how Zubeen da (his favourite singer) must feel when he sang on stage.
But becoming “rock stars” wasn’t that simple. They didn’t have money to buy thermocol to “make” their guitars. They didn’t even have band members. “If you want to become a rock star, you need to be at least four,” says Manabendra, matter-of-factly. That month — sometime in March 2013 — the two went around their village looking to recruit potential band members. And money to buy theromocol for their instruments. “Many were dismissive. They said ‘Ei maaxa baad de’. ‘Don’t waste your time on frivolities’,” says Manabendra.
The duo managed to collect some money, and soon they had instruments and a five-membered band: Rinku on the vocals, Bhaskar on the (thermocol) keys, Bishnu on the (thermocol) drums and Boloram and Manabendra on the (thermocol) guitar. They recorded bits of their favourite songs to make a 30-minute long medley: it had Assamese, Hindi and even Telugu tracks. “The organisers told us that we could perform for ten minutes,” recalls Rinku.
But the boys and their theatrics turned out to be such a hit that they were on stage for the full 30 minutes that evening. At the end of the show, as is the norm in many local Bihu functions, people gave them money. “We collected Rs 1,300!” says Manabendra. In the crowd, his little sister, Bhanita watched, proud of her big brother on stage.
Soon, the “band” was called for several performances around the different villages in Chhaygaon. “We called ourselves the ‘Rockstars’,” says Rinku. And on some important occasions, they would use the longer version: the Rockstar Dance Group.
“Even villagers can act in ‘successful’ movies”
In the hamlet of Dohgaon Kalardiya in Chhaygaon live 70 families. Three weeks ago, courtesy one house, they all learnt a new word: Oscar. “We now know it’s something that’s given our village a name,” says Purobi Thakuria, a 33-year-old-housewife. She admits that when she first saw Rima Das and her band of children going around the village with a camera, she wondered what they were up to. They were “shooting”, she had heard. But don’t films require bigger cameras, a crew, and glamorous actors and actresses?
Over the next four years, Thakuria and the village saw the tiny group film through rain, sun and clouds. After the initial curiosity abated, no one bothered them. Das had been a resident of the village till her family moved to Chhaygaon town a few years ago. Hers wasn’t the only one — over the years, better job opportunities have led many to make the same move. Those who stayed on continued planting their paddy, grazing their cows, and weaving their clothes. Among them was Das’s widowed aunt and her children, whose story loosely inspires her film, Village Rockstars, India’s official entry to the Oscars 2019. In it, young Dhunu, based on and played by Das’s cousin Bhanita Das, her brother Manabendra and his friends want to be “rockstars” and own a “real” guitar. Until they do, they make do with a “thermocol” one.
The premise is used to tell the story of Dohgaon Kalardiya, which could be any other village in Assam with its lush green landscapes that disguise the hard lives its residents lead: torrential rains and the floods that follow, women who battle them in knee-deep water, children who strum thermocol guitars by night and go to school barefoot the next day, and endless vistas of paddy fields where cows, goats and kids while away their time.
While over the years, even as aspirations have changed for this tiny village (part of the population has moved from “farming” to jobs in the organised sector), the pace of life has not. For Dhonmoni Nath, 21, the film told the story of his desires. Like Dhunu, Nath has always wanted to become a singer. He grew up with a dream of owning a guitar but knew he was “too poor” to get one. If he ever saw someone holding one at a local Bihu function, he would strum it when he thought no one was watching, and later bashfully enquire its cost. When he passed his higher secondary exam, Nath bought a second-hand guitar (worth Rs 2,000) with the money he had saved. “When I finally had it in my hands, I felt like god himself had landed up,” he says.
While he is pursuing his a B.Com degree, Nath has not let go of his dream to become a singer. He continues to take lessons on the side from a local “master” and performs on stage whenever he can. Among his friends at the Chhaygaon College, he is perhaps the only one who harbours such dreams.
The college, set up in 1974, is the lone institute of higher education in the area, and offers courses in commerce and humanities. “Everyone we know studies in this college,” says Nath. On any given day, there is always a crowd at its gates. Young boys and girls chat, watch movies on their smartphones, share a cold drink or exchange notes. All of Nath’s friends, he says, want to become doctors, engineers and teachers. “That is because those jobs provide security. That doesn’t mean there is no interest in the arts, or no talent. But our backgrounds allow us only certain dreams.”
The “talent” brims during local Bihu functions, where children sing, dance, and act. “A film like Village Rockstars gives youngsters like me hope that even villagers like us can act in ‘successful’ movies,” says Nath.
Sometimes, Nath’s father, who owns a shop that sells local “rations”, tells him, “We support you. But will singing put food on your plate?” Nath feels that his parents’ anxieties are justified. “When they were young, they did not have such facilities. There was no college. There was no internet to look for a song they liked,” he says.
Over the past couple of years, the village youth have been discovering music through the internet. “If we hear someone hum a song, we find it online just like that!” says Nath. Bollywood does trickle into their consciousness, but it is local Assamese singer Zubeen Garg they are all blindly devoted to.
The “smartphone” has opened up a new world for these youngsters. Like a rite of passage, most get one after they pass their higher secondary exams. Boloram, Rinku, Manabendra all got it a year ago. Being younger, Bhaskar and Bhanita don’t own one yet. “Some people get it from their family. Some save money for months to buy one,” says Boloram, 17.
Rinku, 19, who initially teamed up with Manabendra in 2013 to form their “band” is the only son in his family, which means he has had to shoulder the responsibility of earning a living from a young age. “Of course, having fun and ‘pretend’ singing is one thing but I have been working from a very young age. You know, last week, I was so busy with work, I forgot it was my birthday!” says Rinku, who is a skilled “mechanic”, something he learned on the job. “Geysers, gas burners, filters — I can fix them all,” he says.
While the men are away at work, the women and children are the most visible residents of Kalardiya on a regular day, as is seen in the movie, too. Women weave on the porches of their home, children play carrom or marbles by the road.
“For us, the most real thing was the ‘scenery’,” says Nilima Kalita, who teaches at a local school in Kalardiya, “I know people from outside will find it beautiful, which it is. But when we villagers watch the film, it is very real for us. While I laughed at some points of the movie, I cried too, especially in the scenes with Dhunu and her mother.”
Kalita moved to Kalardiya in 1999 when she got married. “Back then there were no roads, no electricity. If we ever went to Guwahati, we would never know what time we would be back at Kalardiya,” she says. Kalita, who finally managed to watch the movie on the Sunday after it was released at the Chhayygaon Gold Cinema Hall, went along with nine other women (all sisters-in-law), and wept through the film.
“This is our life”
In 2013, Das was in Assam shooting for her first feature film, Man With The Binoculars, when she spotted the “rockstars” at the Bihu function. Three days later, she called them home. Manabendra was her first cousin, but they had never interacted. Das had moved to Mumbai when he was only three. “I took Rinku along. We were so shy. I kept pushing him in front,” recalls Manabendra, now 18. “She asked us if we would like to be in a movie.”
A few days later, the filmmaker gave the five boys notebooks. “She asked us to write about our lives, whatever had happened: the good, the bad,” says Rinku.
“I think I wrote about the time my goat’s horn went into my eye. And the time I was playing hide and seek — I hid so well that my family members thought I had gotten lost,” says Boloram. His father works at a mithai shop in Chhaygaon town, but he is certain that he wants to be in films. He remembers his first day “on the set”. “It was behind Rima ba’s house. We went in front of the camera and started acting. She told us to think this was real life and so we did. We got to keep our real names too!”
There was no script, and barely any dialogues to memorise. During the shoot, Bhanita — Manabendra’s sister — would hang around. “And, suddenly, it hit me — Dhunu, as we call her at home, was the story,” says Das. “She would climb trees, she would run around with the other boys. I saw myself in her: as a child, I would be scaling trees, hanging out with boys.” What had started as a movie about five boys, suddenly became one about a feisty, badass girl who wanted, more than anything else, to own a guitar. “Dhunu just took over,” says Das.
The reel and the real Dhunu are practically the same person: both like music, both are agile tree-climbers, both have a pet goat called Munnu (who also starred in the film). “I love animals. Once, when one of our calves had died, I cried so much that the neighbours came running to ask what was wrong,” she says. She was a talkative 10-year-old when Village Rockstars began. Now she’s 15, mature, thoughtful and quieter than before.
Once Bhanita was cast, her mother Basanti was, too. Ever since their father passed away 14 years ago, Bhanita would spend a lot of time with her mother, who has raised her children alone. “She would go to the fields when I did, plant paddy, feed the goats,” says Basanti, 53, “Just like she does in the movie.”
It is, perhaps, the most telling relationship in Village Rockstars: that of the mother and daughter, translated effortlessly on to the screen subtly reflecting the quiet feminism of a small Assamese village. “It’s probably because we did not have to act. This is our life,” says Basanti, sitting in her three-roomed mud home in Kalardiya. Three years ago, a big flood had damaged most of the house. “The water reached up till here,” says Bhanita, indicating a mark on the wall about three feet from the ground. This was during the shoot of Village Rockstars, many parts of which have been filmed in the house. Das then helped the family to rebuild portions of the house.
In the movie, there are shots of Dhunu and Bhaskar, sitting on a boat, looking out at the destruction the waters have caused. In one scene, Dhunu tells him about the embankment that could have saved her father from drowning if it had been built in time. Like clockwork in Dohgaon Kalardiya, every monsoon brings the floods, and the villagers take boats or simply wade through water to reach a higher ground, usually the highway. “We keep our belongings on the roof, and take our cows and everything,” says Bhanita, whose father died of an illness when she was three.
When Das first asked Basanti to act in a film, she worried that it would affect her regular household chores. “Later, I said to myself ji hobo, hobo (what will be, will be),” she says.
An hour into Village Rockstars, there’s a scene where Basanti, clad in a thin towel, is teaching her daughter how to swim — a life skill necessary for any child who grows up in flood-ravaged Assam. “That came naturally to me. But later, when I saw it, bohut laaz laagil. I felt so shy. I am sure the villagers noticed my ‘dress’. Sometimes when people compliment me — ‘khuri bhaal laagise dei’ — I think they are referring to my dress,” says Basanti, as the kids around her begin to giggle.
Workshops under open skies
Das spent her formative years in Kalardiya before her family moved to Chhaygaon town. Sometime in early 2000, she moved to Guwahati where she studied literature in Cotton College. While she grew up in a household that emphasised on education (she recalls her father, a teacher, always telling her to learn five new words from the dictionary every day), her heart was always in acting. In 2003, she moved to Mumbai to pursue that dream. It didn’t take her much time to realise how difficult it would be.
“But it was also the time I discovered world cinema,” says Das, 36. In Prithvi Theatre, Das, who had grown up on Bollywood and Assamese films, was exposed to European cinema for the first time. “I realised I wanted to make films. It was too late to go to film school. So I began by watching films on YouTube,” she says. In 2009, she made her first short film, Pratha, and, in 2016, Man With the Binoculars.
Filming Village Rockstars was a struggle as she wrote, shot, directed and produced the movie while shuttling between Chhaygaon and Mumbai over four years. “I rarely talk about it now. But on some days I would be in tears,” she says, “But every single scene was like a workshop under open skies. Village Rockstars was my film school.”
“Girls can dream too!”
During the four years of the shoot, executed in warm, natural light, the villagers would sometime ask the children, “Kaam nai niki tohotor? (Do you all have no other work?)” “But things changed after we were invited to Mumbai,” says Bishnu, 18.
In October last year, the crew (Bishnu, Bhaskar, Manabendra, Rinku, Boloram, Bhanita, Mallika, and Basanti led by Das) all took off for the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, where the film was screened for the first time in India. Memories from the trip are clear: “In Bombay, the buildings are big, yes but so are the biscuits!” recalls Bishnu, “I couldn’t believe that a biscuit could be as big as the palm of my hand.” They stayed at the JW Marriot in Juhu. “We would jump on beds, watch TV all night, but also go for morning walks on Juhu beach,” says Rinku.
The teenagers, on the brink of adulthood, now all want to work in films. Rinku, who just turned 19 last week, religiously runs every morning. Das said he needs to get fit for her next movie, and she might cast him. Manabendra has finished filming for Bulbul Can Sing, Rima’s new film, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last month. Bhaskar, Boloram, Bishnu and Bhanita all want to act too.
But, by and large, for the rockstars, life has remained the same in Kalardiya.
Bhanita stills cycles to school, plays with her pet goat but she doesn’t climb trees as often as she did when she was younger. “I think I started climbing when I was seven. It just came to me naturally. Sometimes my mother would ask me to collect some taamul (betel nut) And I’d be up there in a minute,” she says.
When she was younger, villagers would tease her. “It was in jest, mostly. They would say — ‘Baa, suali’e korise’ — wow, you’re climbing a tree despite being a girl,” says Bhanita, “But in my mind, I want to do everything. What boys do. What girls do. Why are there set rules? Girls can dream too,” she says.
When she was first cast, Bhanita wasn’t friends with the boys. They were much older, and they were already friends from before. “But, over the years, we have become great friends,” she says, “Though of course, these days they are too busy to hang out with me. Tahaator level baahrise. They think they are too cool for me now,” she jokes.
It’s the Mumbai trip — one of many firsts (first time outside, first time on a plane) — that all of them love to talk about. An abiding memory is clicking photos with celebrities. “With Deepika Padukone! With (MS) Dhoni. With Sonam Kapoor!” says Bhanita, “We did not talk to them. Our Hindi is not that great and we barely know English,” she says, “Kiba kibi kolu. I don’t know what we said.”
Her mother, Basanti, sitting next to her, says, “I wonder how that is fair. We have to know all the languages: English, Hindi and Assamese. And they have to know only theirs.” Her daughter says calmly, “Ma, it’s simple. We go there and learn their things because places like Mumbai have facilities for big things. If we, in Assam, had done big things, they would have come here instead, right?” she says, blissfully unaware and unaffected by all the big things she has already done.