Until recently, few had ever heard of the village of Chhaygaon. But this year’s Indian National Film Awards put the Assam settlement — along with filmmaker Rima Das — in the glare of media attention.
Das’s second film, Village Rockstars, won awards for Best Film, Best Editing, Best Child Actor (Banita Das) and Best Location Sound (Mallika Das).
The last time an Assamese film won national acclaim was in 1987, when director Jahnu Barua’s Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe) was recognised as Best Feature Film.
To win four national awards for her second directorial venture is no mean achievement. Das had just returned from Los Angeles where Village Rockstars won the Grand Jury Prize at the Indian Film Festival. Little did she know that a surprise was awaiting her at Guwahati airport. A convoy of vehicles escorted her home and, the following day, the government of Assam, the eastern Indian state, feted her and her team.
For this self-taught director, it was the culmination of a journey that began in her village of Chayygaon and has lasted three-and-a-half years. Das’s tale of relentless pursuit mirrors the story of her protagonist, Dhunu, who does not forsake her dreams. Besides writing the screenplay, Das produced, directed, handled the camera and edited the film too. Call it a one woman show — and clearly Das is Chayygaon’s very own rock star.
Das’s poignant tale of 10-year-old Dhunu and her dreams of becoming a rock star with her own band won fans across the board. Since last September, Village Rockstars has been travelling all over the festival circuit, winning rave reviews and collecting awards. The Toronto International Film Festival set the ball rolling; the movie was the only film screened in its competition section.
Earlier awards include Oxfam’s Best Film On Gender Equality at the prestigious MAMI Festival in Mumbai; the Best Artistic Contribution at the Cairo International Film Festival; and three awards at the Olympia International Film Festival in Greece. The four national awards in India is truly the cherry on the cake.
Calling Village Rockstars a “beautiful and lyrical film that left him stunned,” Shekar Kapur, the jury head of the panel for selection of 65th National Film Awards, said “Rima Das proved that passion and humility make great cinema, not stars and big budget.”
Das says she is busy attending three or four film festivals every month and living out of suitcases has become the norm, as next up are film festivals in Munich and London.
“Everywhere viewers have appreciated the natural and organic nature of the film,” Das says. “Some elders mentioned that the film took them to their childhood days.
Born and raised in Chayygaon, the sociology post-graduate arrived in Mumbai aspiring to become an actor. While her acting dreams did not materialise, life in Mumbai exposed her to world cinema. Watching the works of great movie directors which included Ingmar Bergman and Quentin Tarantino, it did not take long to wake up the director in her. Das used the internet and YouTube to enhance her knowledge of cinema and learn about filmmaking.
She began with short films. When her short Pratha was selected at the Chicago short film festival in 2009, it gave her a much-needed boost. Her first feature film, Antardrishti, premiered at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in 2016 and at MAMI, the Mumbai Film Festival.
The film is the story of a retired geography teacher from a small village in Assam, whose life starts turning upside down when his son, who has come for visit,gifts him a pair of binoculars.
“It intrigued me,” Das says. “To me the binoculars is a metaphor for the bitter reality of human loneliness, struggles, regrets, differences, our constant desire to control others as well our surroundings and our lack of perspective where small things perceived through the binoculars of our consciousness makes it excessively large while we ignore the big, right in front of us. Chaudhury, hooked onto the binoculars, is always peering around into nature and, like most of us, laments the many boats he has missed in life — even as things around him break apart.”
The seed of Village Rockstars was sown while filming Antardhishti in her village in 2014. It was the time of Bihu — the Assamese New Year festival — and Das remembers watching a group of boys performing songs at a gathering in her village.
“The interesting thing was that they were playing on imaginary instruments,” Das says. She met the boys and told them that she wished to make a film with them. Das began writing the story of Village Rockstars. Initially the story was about the boys. When she spotted Bhanita Das, a little girl playing in their midst, the trajectory of her story changed.
“Bhanita climbed trees with them and reminded me of my childhood days,” recalls Das. “Her energy was remarkable. Why don’t I cast her in the lead role?” she wondered. Six months later, the revised story had Bhanita playing the pivotal character.
Das did not have a planned schedule and just went about clicking photographs of the children quite randomly. Using her own camera, she doubled up as a cinematographer. For funds, she dug into her own pocket and used up money saved from making corporate films and videos. Family members chipped in too.
“I had no budget as such but I must have spent over two million rupees,” she says. Her cousin Mallika Das was her sole assistant. As for the cast, all the children were facing the camera for the first time. “Having attended acting workshops earlier, I taught them techniques in acting. It was done informally,” she says.
Das followed a realistic approach while making Village Rockstars and wanted it to be as authentic as possible. She did not get deterred by frequent rains or the floods and often climbed trees too just to get that perfect shot.
And, of course, there were moments of sheer frustration. “Every moment was tough since I was involved in every department of filmmaking,” she says.
The children cast in the film are the first generation in their families to attend school so their parents were reluctant to let them come for shooting as they had to skip classes. “I reminded myself that life is sometimes made of fragments of an impossible reality,” she notes.
So how did it all come together?
“I really don’t know,” Das smiles. “It just happened. I did not have the time to dwell on anything.” But always, the enthusiasm of the children kept pushing her forward. “They were my support system.”
Her dream moment was travelling with the children to attend the MAMI in Mumbai last year. “It was their first travel by flight and their first journey outside their village,” says Das, who also manages a film production company called Flying River Films in Mumbai.
Das plans to release Village Rockstars later this year and then Antardrishti, her debut film. She has also begun work on her third — a teenage love story.
Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.