One among the 30 houses in the small Assamese village of Kalardiya in Chaygaon has much reason to celebrate today. A film, conceived, shot, based out of and made by a local resident from this sleepy little village, has won the 65th National Award for Best Film, announced in New Delhi Friday morning. Additionally, it won awards for editing, sound recording and best child artist.
If you’re a regular in the film festival circuit of India, you’re sure to have heard of Rima Das’s Village Rockstars. If you’re not, then this is one story you should, regardless.
After its initial screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, the film created a ripple of sorts. In the Mumbai Film Festival where it was screened a month later, 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 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”, catapult to such tremendous success?
Probably the fact that it was made over four years, 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-actors, sourced almost in totality, from the village of Kalardiya in Assam. Or maybe, simply because of what it is about — a ten-year-old girl with dreams to form her own rock band, goes in search of an electric guitar in her village.
“Right after people see the movie in these festivals around the world, they come to me with tears in their eyes,” says Rima Das, over a call from Los Angeles. The director, who is in the US for yet another screening of her movie, seems exceptionally calm for someone who has just learnt that the country’s highest film honour has been bestowed on her.
But the fact is that this victory is nothing short of exceptional. Das never went to film school; she always wanted to be an actor. In Chaygaon, where she grew up, films were something to be watched, not made and definitely not learnt. And yet, Das, who trained herself from videos off the internet, moved to Mumbai in 2003, to make something of her dream.
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 still 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 mukoli aakax (open skies),” says Das.
And it was under these skies, too, that Das grew up — a tomboy, who spent most of her childhood scaling trees with the local village boys. The protagonist, Bhanita Das, who won the National Award for the Best Child Artist, sort of shaped the movie. “She reminded me of my own childhood—I never had plans of a female lead, nor did I force it. But Bhanita’s personality was so overpowering that the story asked for it,” says Das.
Before announcing the awards this morning, filmmaker and jury head of the awards, Shekhar Kapur remarked, “I didn’t know there are movies made in Assam that make it to Cannes,” acknowledging the variety of regional cinema being made across India. “It’s really great that they have recognised a movie that is not Bollywood — there is so much more out there,” says Das. Out there, and if we care to notice, sometimes right beneath open skies.