Director: Rima Das
Cast: Bhanita Das, Basanti Das
A girl in a village with a guitar – that one image captures the spirit and originality of this charming and audacious Assamese film. Village Rockstars has been directed, produced, written, shot and edited by Rima Das. The film went on to do a stellar run at international film festivals including Toronto and Mumbai. It is India's official entry to the Oscars. I'm telling you this because the film's journey is one of those impossible showbiz fairy tales. And this unlikely success comes from Rima's ability to tell a moving story with clarity and precision.
Village Rockstars is the story of Dhunu, a spirited ten-year-old girl in a desperately poor village in Assam. Dhunu likes to climb trees. She goes to school with the boys. And she sleeps clutching a thermocol guitar, dreaming of someday getting a real one and creating a band. In a heartbreaking scene, she asks her mother, "Will you buy me a guitar?" This is a family that survives on plain rice. Dhunu's father was killed in a flood. Her mother works incessantly to raise Dhunu and her brother. When the water comes again, their fields are destroyed. In these circumstances, a guitar seems like an impossible dream.
But Dhunu and her feisty mother are fighters. When the village ladies complain about Dhunu climbing trees, her mother shouts back. She struggles to give Dhunu the joys she can. But she also doesn't hesitate to beat her with a stick when Dhunu takes a boat out into the floodwaters. "Do you want to die also?" her mother angrily asks.
The beauty is that at no point are we asked to feel sorry for these people. Their poverty is a fact of life. But their resilience is what defines them. The film begins with the dedication – a tribute to the place, the people, where I come from. Rima celebrates the ferocious spirit of her hometown. The actors in Village Rockstars are non-professionals. The lead Bhanita Das, is Rima's cousin. She miraculously manages to combine innocence with determination and quiet wisdom. Dhunu persists without losing her playfulness.
Nature also plays a lead role. In wide shots, Rima captures the beauty and greenery of the land. But the landscape is also cruel and indifferent – when the waters rise, they spare nothing. Farms, homes, humans are drenched. Tree trunks, swaying plants are often foregrounded in Rima's frames. They are as important as the people. And Rima isn't one for drama. The narrative plays out almost un-plotted like a documentary.
If you like your movies to be tightly constructed and busy, then this might test your patience. Village Rockstars is a slow burn. The scenes accrue building characters and themes. The pay-off isn't instant but if you surrender to the world, you come away enriched and buoyant, with Dhunu's smiling face in your head.