Rima Das’s Village Rockstars, which has already travelled to festivals all over the world and is going to represent India in the foreign language film category at the Academy Awards in 2019, is a film about adolescent aspiration and rural poverty. The ideas seem antithetical to each other, and you’d expect a film like this to hinge around a predictable structure of trial, hurdles and a rousing climax of transcendence.
The singularity of Das’s second feature is that transcendence arrives in moments. It is free from the trappings of plot and dramatic points – some scenes reveal nothing except the languor and inescapability of life in rural Assam. The lush, wet village it is set in is a character in itself.
The hope isn’t that its adolescent protagonist Dhunu (Banita Das) will rise out of the poverty and patriarchy she is growing up with, but that her single mother, a workhorse, quietly champions her and may be the messiah she needs. Dhunu is irrepressible herself, dreaming of owning a guitar one day (she carves a pretty good one out of styrofoam herself), and basking in a clique of boys her age. We see her tuloni biya or growing-up wedding – when she gets her period for the first time, ladies of the neighbourhood smear her with sindoor, make her undergo a retinue of rituals and warn her that the days of her hanging from trees are over. In the very next scene, we see Dhunu blissfully hanging from the gorgeously expansive tree which she climbs every day.
Dhunu lives with her mother (Basanti Das), older brother and a pet goat. They own some land in which they farm, and the family makes money selling betel nuts and whatever else grows in the land they own. The children who go to the government-run primary school in the village happens to see a band perform with guitar and drums. Dhunu goads her friends to think of having their own band and guitar. The village folk find this idea preposterous.
Village Rockstars is a one-crew film. The surname of almost the entire cast is Das. Dhunu is played by Das’s niece. Rima Das uses few close-ups because she is working with amateurs – there is nothing textbook about Village Rockstars except the way Das uses cinematography to create mood and character.
Shot over two years, Rima Das captures the floods that devastates livelihoods in the state every year – the floating homes, cattle and aspirations. Creaky boats over backwaters and tributaries of the Brahmaputra, which Dhunu manoeuvres with ease, become a conceit, a physical manifestation of hope. Das shoots with the style of a documentarian, and her love for the landscape and its people is obvious. Even in tragedy and storms, nature presents itself with the possibility that its beauty and might will somehow see Dhunu and her mother through.
In a brief exchange between Dhunu and her mother we come know that her father drowned in the floods because he was too timid to learn swimming. The wiry, agile mother wouldn’t want her daughter to meet the same fate – she hand-holds Dhunu to swim across the length of a pond with fierce, muddy tides.
Das is not concerned with form. There isn’t much happening in the film; there are no crucial dramatic points that reveal something new or lead to an event or an action. The film’s languorousness creates its own rhythm, and the women’s empowerment story, at its centre, unfolds without fuss. The boys aren’t much different from Dhunu, they spend most of their time under the grey open skies and above the tall lokasa grass constantly caressing them.
But Dhunu has a plan. Banita Das plays the role without the skill of an actor, but she reveals glimpses of pain and ecstasy that lift Dhunu a few notches.
Das has also written the film. The dialogue is in a dialect specific to lower Assam, Nalbari and other districts, which has rarely been used in a film or any other form of media.
Rural India gets new life in Village Rockstar. If it travels more, even further away from the beautiful microcosm in which it is set and which has bypassed progress as we know it, it will be a triumph of the power of cinema to transcend the provincial into something rivettingly universal.