Featuring the North-East is definitely a priority: Filmmaker Rima Das
- ‘Bulbul Can Sing’ looks at young lives and sexual identity in an Assamese village
- This is Das’ first film after the acclaimed ‘Village Rockstars’
Even as the acclaim lavished on her earlier feature, Village Rockstars, settles slowly, Rima Das is busy showing her next feature, Bulbul Can Sing, at film festivals. Following the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it was well received by critics, it was shown at the Busan and Singapore international film festivals. At the Berlinale in February, it won a Special Mention in the Generation 14Plus category. In the space of a few years, Das has become an indie talent to watch.
Bulbul Can Sing is an elegiac coming-of-age story set in an Assamese village. It follows a bunch of teenagers, their growing-up pains, life-altering romances, sexual abuse and gender dysphoria in a conservative village, a contrast to the breathtaking, expansive views of fields and rivers. A self-made artist and storyteller, Das seems overwhelmed by the success of Village Rockstars. Speaking to Lounge at the Berlinale about the origins of Bulbul Can Sing, Das talks about exploring her inner child to connect with children, and what it means to be a female director in India today. Edited excerpts:
What are the origins of ‘Bulbul Can Sing’?
It’s quite interesting how Bulbul came to me. For my first film, Man With The Binoculars (2016), I wrote my script in Mumbai. But when I went back to shoot in my village in Assam, it felt like reconnecting with my roots. When I started working with children in Village Rockstars, the process felt like exploring my inner child, like growing up all over again. I wanted to continue working with children and decided to do a film about teenagers, and Bulbul happened.
What was it like dealing with non-professional young adult actors?
The actor in me helped a lot in understanding the psychology of child actors and connecting with them emotionally. Though I put them through training, it was very informal. I created an environment in which they felt free and comfortable and could be themselves. I think that helped a lot. Not to mention, my actors turned out to be extremely talented as well.
There’s a tender and realistic portrayal of a gay child that captures the pain of growing up in a place where bullying and social ostracism are common.
I saw Manoranjan Das, who plays Suman, one of the protagonists, when I was shooting for my first film, when he was only around 10-11 years old. He was subjected to bullying, his classmates would call him “ladies" because he was effeminate. I could see he was pained by all this. Initially, I thought I would make a documentary with him but he was reluctant to be part of it. He has little understanding or context of what he is going through. He has neither the opportunity nor the space to express or identify with his sexuality. I realized it’s very important to portray Manoranjan’s character. So I wrote him into Bulbul.
What was your collaboration like with him?
First off, he is not a professional actor, so he was very shy and hesitant. I had to keep it subtle and handle his whole part in the movie very sensitively, because I had this huge responsibility of not making a caricature out of his character. I thought a realistic portrayal of a child like him, who is confused with his sexuality, will make a bit of a difference for children like him. He is one of my favourite characters and I think he’s an important lead character in the movie, despite the movie being about Bulbul (played by Arnali Das). I was extremely pleased when Manoranjan was awarded the best performance award at the Singapore International Film Festival last year.
What is it like to be a female film-maker today?
Since I never worked as an assistant director, my career trajectory is different from others. Even then it would be naïve to say things were smooth for me. But I tend to ignore such strict gender-based social conditioning. I experienced it with my first movie so I decided to do it alone in Village Rockstars to avoid such issues. Maybe in the future, if I work with bigger studios, this might change. I also firmly believe that we have to create a space for ourselves.
You acted in ‘Man With The Binoculars’. Do you see yourself in front of the camera again?
I don’t know, honestly. With these two films, I have been consumed by so much work I don’t have any mental space to be an actor. I’m open to possibilities. Maybe later, after a year or so, when things settle down and when I have more time for myself, and if a director believes in my potential as an actor and if the role excites me, I’ll be game for it.
So far, your movies have been based in the area where you grew up, in rural Assam. Will that change in the future?
I am exploring two-three ideas and I might also collaborate with other people. In my work, featuring the North-East is definitely a priority since I believe there are so many untold stories from that part of the world. It also helps that I’m from the region and I can be culturally sensitive about my subjects. I have lived in Mumbai for about a decade now and consider the city my second home, so a film (based) in Mumbai is a possibility too. Even then, I want to understand the language and culture deeply so I refrain from doing anything superficially. I want to say the North-East will be the immediate focus for now.