Mumbai: Self-Taught Filmmaker Rima Das Talks Oscar Hopeful 'Village Rockstars'

Courtesy of the Mumbai Film Festival
'Village Rockstars'

Das' movie is India's entry in the foreign-language Oscar race and, like her latest release, 'Bulbul Can Sing' which premiered at Toronto, features nonprofessional actors and is set in her home state of Assam.

Rima Das' breakthrough feature Village Rockstars wowed audiences worldwide on the festival circuit, picked up four wins at India's National Awards and is now the country's entry for the foreign-language Oscar. As if that weren't enough, the self-taught filmmaker immediately followed up those accomplishments with her second feature, Bulbul Can Sing, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and is showing this week at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Both films have received high praise from critics, with The Hollywood Reporter's reviewer calling Village Rockstars "an unshowy winner," while Bulbul Can Sing was hailed as "quietly insightful." Das has been a one-woman army on her films, handling everything from scripting, cinematography, production design and editing.

Set in India's northeastern state of Assam, Village Rockstars revolves around a young girl, Dhunu, who battles poverty while chasing her dream of owning a guitar and forming a rock band. Filmed on a shoestring budget, the Assamese-language film featured mostly nonprofessional actors, including Das' niece Bhanita, who plays Dhunu.

Hailing from Assam in northeastern India, like many local industry aspirants, Das first moved to Mumbai to try her luck as an actress. But after some years of struggle, she felt dejected and returned to her roots in Assam. The homecoming, and a trusty Canon camera, set Das off on her directing journey. 

Chatting with THR on the eve of the Mumbai festival, the filmmaker explains her unconventional trajectory as a director; her next challenge: mounting an Oscar campaign for Village Rockstars; and her views on LGBTQ stories in the Indian film industry in light of the recent abolition of the country's anti-gay law.

What inspired you to get started as a self-taught filmmaker?

I had moved to Mumbai from my village in Assam [to pursue acting] and in that time I got the opportunity to watch all kinds of movies. Also, attending festivals like the Mumbai Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India in Goa introduced me to various films. I got really interested in films by Iranian director Majid Majidi and Wong Kar Wai, in addition to masters such as Ingmar Bergman.

What inspired the story for Village Rockstars?

It is a real story with the color of my imagination. Once when I was visiting my village, I saw these boys performing at a local gathering and that inspired me. Village Rockstars is not only about music, it is also about hope and positivity and how people overcome natural calamities and celebrate life. Because living in cities like Mumbai is totally different from life in the village, where people live with little resources. I spent six months with the children in the village and that's how the story developed.

Village Rockstars features a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors. How was it working with them?

I first worked with children when I made my debut short film, Pratha, in 2009 and since then I have actually been more comfortable working with nonprofessional actors because they totally surrender to you and trust you. Considering the kind of script I was developing for Village Rockstars, I thought nonprofessional actors would be the best to tell that story. For the main character of the female lead, [10-year-old Dhunu], I cast Bhanita Das, who is my cousin.

How challenging was it to raise funding for the film?

I actually didn't raise any funding at all when I started shooting. I had bought a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera in 2011 and that has been my constant companion for all my movies. So I just started filming Village Rockstars without thinking about any funding. It took me four years to complete the project and there were many challenges, but somehow, family and friends helped me and things fell in place. But all along, I didn't have any fear, somehow I had the belief that whatever I was doing was going to work, and that we could recover the money later on. In addition to the cinematography, I also edited the film myself. A rough cut of the film was selected in the recommendation section of the 2016 Film Bazaar [the annual event organized by India's National Film Development Corp.], where it was noticed by some international curators, such as [former festival head of Rome and Venice] Marco Mueller and [U.K. producer] Olivia Stewart.

Did you expect the kind of international festival response you got for Village Rockstars?

I honestly didn't expect anything. The film opened at Toronto, which was followed by its European premiere at San Sebastian. I was happy it was at Toronto and I never expected that it would end up going to so many festivals and get the kind of response that it did.

To top it all, did you expect the film to end up as India's foreign-language Oscar submission?

After the festival response and winning National Awards [in four categories, including best feature and best child actor for Bhanita Das], I was hoping for the Oscar entry. My friends were saying that there was a good chance. I was always waiting [in my career] for that day, but I didn't know that it would come so early.

How are you promoting the film for its Oscar campaign?

I am actually not aware how much money is needed for the Oscar campaign. I have received a grant of $138,000 (10 million rupees) from the Assam government, which has been very helpful, but I am still trying to raise more funds. I haven't yet talked to any film companies [for additional support]. Also, since I am handling everything on my own, I have a lot on my plate. For the last three years, I have been traveling to festivals around the world, including with my latest film, Bulbul Can Sing, so I have been really busy.

Bulbul Can Sing revolves around teenagers. What drew you back to making a film with young people?

I experienced childhood with Village Rockstars and now I wanted to have a teenage experience with Bulbul Can Sing. It is a life-changing thing for me as well. When you are working with children and teenagers, they are more transparent, more innocent, and that excites me.

Bulbul Can Sing also hints at a character who is gay. In light of the Indian Supreme Court recently abolishing the anti-gay law, how do you see this impacting the portrayal of LGBT characters in Indian films? Do you think Indian audiences will now be more open to accepting LGBT storylines and characters?

The LGBT community should be treated as fellow human beings and they should get the freedom to choose. I really wanted to show this character because, despite the Supreme Court's ruling, in villages people are not even aware of what it is like to be gay. They are confused with sexuality and they don't even know that this thing exists, which is the reason I wanted to introduce this character and wanted him to get respect. It is for the audience to decide if that character is gay, since I feel he is fighting with his sexual identity. I just tried to portray him the way he is, I am not trying to overdo something. As a society, we have to educate people about such issues as they behave unknowingly and they can't understand the pain of a fellow human being. Films in general should portray such characters if there is importance and meaning in the story.