The credits of the Assamese film Village Rockstars are proof of director Rima Das’s commitment to bringing the story of a 10-year-old girl who yearns for an electric guitar to the screen.
Village Rockstars has been written, directed, produced, shot and designed by Das. “It is a positive story about hope and desire, and children bring positivity,” said the filmmaker.
Shot over nearly three years since 2014 over 150 days, Village Rockstars was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18). Starring Bhanita Das, Basanti Das, Kulada Bhattyacharya, Manabendra Das and Boloram Das, Village Rockstars is woven around Dhunu’s pursuit of an electric guitar in Assam’s Chhayagaon village.
“You could say that the soul of the film occurred from my childhood,” said Das, who hails from Chhaygaon. “I used to be a tomboy like her, climbing trees and swimming in the river. Activities like this are drawn from my life.”
The film challenges gender stereotypes, but in an organic way, Das explained. “I wanted to show it in a very subtle way,” she said. “It is just a part of life. In my childhood, I was the only girl who used to climb trees. It is a mindset with people that generally girls do not do these things. Such things are not forbidden. But if you do these things, they put you in boxes and call you a tomboy. Dhunu likes to do all these things.”
Das’s debut feature, Man with the Binoculars (2016), explored the story of a man in his final stages of life. It was during the shooting of this film in Assam in 2013 that Das came across a band of local boys playing make-believe instruments to music emerging from a tape recorder. “They were miming by using thermocol instruments,” she said. “That really interested me. Even though they were imagining it, their body language was so fascinating and looked very real.”
Except for Kulada Bhattyacharya, who plays a wise old man in the film, every other actor is a local from Chhayagaon. “I had my own camera and did my own auditions,” Das said. “I had the freedom to pick and cast my own characters. Because I started my career as an actor, that really helped me in the audition.”
Das came to Mumbai over eight years ago to become an actor, but got drawn to filmmaking instead. Both her films are set in her home state, which she calls a natural decision. “I would love to work in the Hindi language and tell the city’s story,” she said. “But when I started making films, I was still an amateur because I had never gotten any education from film schools. So I thought it would be better to tell stories about my people, because I know them really well. It was not intentional. I am more comfortable when I know the people and the situations.”
Her debut feature was self-funded, but Das has extended herself for her second production by taking charge of most of the major filmmaking departments. “If there are people, there are limitations,” Das said. “I wanted to experiment and improvise more with this project, which I maybe could not have done with a crew.”
The feat had its share of hiccups and challenges. “Children grow very fast,” she said. “Funding aside, that was the most challenging, because through the course of filming, I did not want them to lose their charm. However, these things are momentary.”