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Meet the one-woman army behind ‘Village Rockstars’

Rima Das dons many hats for her second feature, screening at the Mumbai Film Festival this week

A still from ‘Village Rockstars’. Photo: Toronto International Film Festival
A still from ‘Village Rockstars’. Photo: Toronto International Film Festival (Toronto International Film Festival)

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MUMBAI : If you stick around as the credits of Village Rockstars start rolling, you’ll see a pattern emerging. One name scrolls past over and over—Rima Das. Not only is she the director of the film (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is screening at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival With Star this week), she’s also the screenwriter, executive producer, editor, production designer and cinematographer. In short, she is the film.

add_main_imageDas, who was born and raised in Assam, dove headfirst into the world of filmmaking several years ago and hasn’t looked back since. She had no formal training whatsoever, unless you count “watching movies, reading articles, watching interviews of great directors”. “Somehow there was this belief inside me that I could tell my own stories,” she says. “I bought a digital camera, a Canon 5D, and just began making short films, began experimenting. I thought to myself, ‘I have nothing to lose.’”

The experimentation led to her first short film, in 2009, titled Pratha, which was selected for several short film festivals, and to 2016’s Man With the Binoculars. Her latest film, Village Rockstars, is set in Chaygaon, the village she grew up in. It’s a sweet little story about a young girl with a big dream—to buy a guitar and form a rock band. Das weaves in multiple layers around this story to paint an authentic picture of life in a small village. There are the women elders who question the protagonist’s penchant for hanging out with the boys rather than with other girls, her family’s intense poverty, and the perennial floods that visit the region, disrupting her mother’s livelihood and resulting in her father’s death a year earlier. “There are many subplots in the story,” says Das. “It doesn’t go in just one line or direction, because that’s how life is.” This explains why Das spent over three years shooting the film, developing the story patiently over time, and working with a local, non-professional cast, including her own cousin, who plays the lead and influenced much of the story. mobAds

“I saw some boys in my village performing with fake instruments at a local gathering, which initially inspired me to tell this story,” Das says. “And then I began thinking about my young cousin (Bhanita Das), who is always around the boys. She’s very naughty, climbing trees, fighting. She’s so restless, it’s difficult to tame her. And so I thought about putting her into this story—a gang of boys and one girl.”

Bhanita is remarkable as the lead, with a determined intensity matched by an infectious playfulness, and she confidently anchors the film. It’s clear that one of Rima Das’s strengths is bringing out the emotions of her characters with an unsentimental earnestness, and she tells this tale of the struggle to reconcile dreams and reality with honesty and clarity. NextMAds

“I was very influenced by Satyajit Ray’s films,” she says. “It was when I saw Pather Panchali that I realized I should make films that concentrate on my village—the place where I know the people and the tradition so well.”

There’s a serenity to her film, an unhurried quality—you’re watching life unfold and there’s no rush to get to a climax. “Many days we ended up shooting nothing,” Das says with a smile. “Some days if it was cloudy and there wasn’t enough light, we used to just lie down in the field, climb trees, swim in the river…” These snippets of life in the village eventually made it to the screen; for example, calamitous floods play a big role, but none of it is manufactured or exaggerated. Even when Das speaks of shooting in those challenging conditions, it’s with a matter-of-fact air that belies the real struggle it must have been for her to handle alone (the only help she had was that of another cousin, who served as her de facto assistant on the shoot).

“I would be in waist-high water or up in a tree, and trying to balance and shoot with my camera,” she says. “It was tough. Managing a boat during the floods was also difficult. Especially because, during an actual flood, there aren’t really any boats to spare. Plus, there was the added responsibility of the children. There were a lot of risks, but it worked.” thirdMAds

The result is a film that’s visually rich and poetic. Das’s eye and sense of perspective make nearly every frame picturesque, whether it’s the post-thunderstorm pink and orange skies, Dhunu under a giant straw hat in a vast green marshland, or a lone boat on a still, expansive lake.

“I’m not a professional cinematographer,” Das says. “But I realized you can do it if you have some inborn instinct. See, if you give a child your mobile or camera… out of five children, you’ll find one who’s good even though he or she doesn’t know anything and has never used a camera before. I just followed my instincts. Ultimately, it’s not about technique, it’s about an emotional connection.”

Village Rockstars plays at the Mumbai Film Festival. Click here for screening details.

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