Rima Das’s Assamese film Village Rockstars has been selected as India’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. A 12-member selection committee of the Film Federation of India, one of the country’s major trade bodies, announced the decision on Saturday after watching 28 entries.

The decision to select the film was unanimous, committee head and Kannada producer-director Rajendra Babu told the media at a press conference at the Indian Motion Picture Producer’s Association in Mumbai, where the deliberations were held. “We had a wonderful jury and wanted justice to be given for each film,” Babu said. “We used to see five films every day, discuss and started making a short list looking into all aspects like narration, screenplay and other aspects.”

The films under consideration included Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, Siddharth Malhotra’s Hichki, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, Tabrez Noorani’s human trafficking drama Love Sonia, Ashwin Nag’s Savitri biopic Mahanati, Chezhiyan’s Tamil drama To-let, Rahi Barve’s horror-thriller Tumbbad, Sukumar’s Telugu period film Rangasthalam, Rahul Bhole and Vinit Kanojia’s Gujarati film Reva and Deb Medhekar’s Kabuliwala adaptation Bioscopewala.

Village Rockstars traces the story of Dhunu, a girl from a village in Assam who dreams of owning a guitar and forming a rock band. Rima Das’s niece, Bhanita Das, plays Dhunu. The film has also been shot, edited and produced by Rima Das and will be released in theatres on September 28. It won the National Film Award for Best Film this year after doing the rounds of several prestigious international film festivals. This is the first Assamese film to be submitted for Oscars consideration.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Das said. “It’s the best day of my life. This is the first Assamese film selected. This is a very big thing for us. It will make a lot of difference for us. This kind of recognition, especially in India where so many films are made in so many different languages, is special.”

Village Rockstars (2017)

Village Rockstars was Das’s second film after Antardrishti (2016). Her latest film, Bulbul Can Sing, was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. “Making this film [Village Rockstars] was a total experiment for me,” Das said. “The journey thereafter has been quite unexpected. Getting awards and getting selected for festivals is a big thing of course but also, the way the audiences have responded to the film also has been unbelievable – such warmth and love.”

Das, who has been living in Mumbai for about 10 years, said that the film harks back to happier and simpler times. “Mumbai is different, a city where we kind of lead very materialistic lives,” she said. “But when I was back in my village, I realised what real happiness is. These children taught me how to unlearn and how important nature is in our lives. So I tried to give that message through this film. I really want children to watch this film.”

Das’s film will compete with, among others, Alfonso Cuaron’s autobiographical drama Roma from Mexico, Pakistani-Norwegian filmmaker Iram Haq’s What Will People Say, starring Indian actor Adil Hussain, Yasmine Chouikh’s romantic drama Until The End Of Time from Algeria, Huang Hsin-yao’s The Great Buddha from Taiwan, Vahid Jalilvand’s psychological drama No Date, No Signature from Iran, Nelson Carlos de Los Santos’s Cocote from Dominican Republic, Abu Bakr Shawki’s Yomeddine from Egypt and Silvio Caiozzi’s And Suddenly the Dawn from Chile. Countries have till October 1 to send their entries to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman from Chile won the Oscar in the foreign language film category in 2018.

India has never won an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language category. Submissions in recent years include Court (2015), Visaranai (2016) and Newton (2017). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chooses the winner from a shortlist of five entries. Only three Indian films have reached the shortlist: Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001).

Jury member and filmmaker Anant Mahadevan said at the press conference that they were “proud and happy” to send Village Rockstars to the Oscars. “The Oscar committee would always want a film rooted in that country and a technically well made and well-performed film,” he said. “It [Village Rockstars] is the closest that our cinemas have come to international cinema.”

The 91st Academy Awards will be held on February 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, the Academy invited 20 Indians from various filmmaking streams to be voting members. The list includes Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan, Tabu, Aditya Chopra, Guneet Monga, Sneha Khanwalker, Dolly Ahluwalia, Manish Malhotra, Debajit Changmai and Anil Mehta.

On social media, congratulatory messages poured in for Das, including from North Eastern politicians and the Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal.