'Village Rockstars': Film Review | Mumbai 2017

Village Rockstars Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of the Mumbai Film Festival
An unshowy winner.

A 10-year-old tomboy in a rural Indian village wants a guitar in Rima Das’ slice-of-life tale.

Here’s a film that has none of the tantalizing glamour, music or performances promised by its title, yet turns out to be deeply satisfying in a completely unexpected way. Village Rockstars trains its camera on a young girl just this side of puberty, growing up poor and fatherless, but with a joyful heart and the quiet support of her hard-working mom. When she conceives the idea of creating a band and owning a real guitar, it becomes the exhilarating symbol of realizing indomitable dreams, if always just a bit out of reach. Shot in a laid-back, barely scripted style, the film’s strong characters and authenticity made it the big winner at the Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival, where new talent Rima Das took home the top India Gold award as well as several other kudos.

Das, a true multihyphenate who wrote, directed, produced, edited and handled the cinematography, art direction and costume design herself, paints a widescreen love letter to her native village of Chhaygaon in the northeast Indian state of Assam and its free-spirited youngsters. The filming, which took place over several years, partly overlapped that of her more conventionally narrated and crewed first feature, Man With the Binoculars, which made the festival rounds last year.

Village Rockstars storytelling is so offhand it borders on documentary. The action follows natural rhythms, the seasons, biology. In the flat marshlands, poor villagers like Dhunu (Bhanita Das) and her widowed mother (Basanti Das) have to work hard just to survive. Their meals can be as simple as a bowl of rice without condiments. Their environment may look idyllic, but it is harsh; annual flooding has already robbed them of Dhunu’s father, who never learned to swim and drowned as a result. Now Dhunu’s mother teaches her daughter to swim.

Yet life doesn’t feel hard or oppressive to this strong-willed tomboy and the boys she hangs out with; it is joyful and natural when they walk to school, horse around, climb trees, go fishing, look after the family livestock and help plant rice in the paddies. Dhunu is a natural leader, unlike her lazy brother who skips school. One evening, her excitement at seeing a boy band, who sing in playback to a woman’s voice as they strum homemade Styrofoam “guitars,” gives birth to a fervent wish to have a guitar of her own.

The beautiful thing is that her mother, against all expectation, doesn’t say no. At first she shuts her up by suggesting she sell her pet goat to buy the guitar (out of the question), then she secretly checks out prices in the market. But when heavy rains flood the area, wiping out their rice crop, it looks like there are other priorities for the small family.

A characteristic of the film is its determined refusal to dramatize anything. The unemphatic editing makes one event follow another almost casually, in a natural order that suggests acceptance. Even the disaster of the flood, which destroys farmlands, knocks out the bridge to school and submerges homes, is downplayed by being seen through the eyes of the children, for whom it represents a novelty.

Meanwhile, Dhunu's life is changing, too. When she is loudly criticized by some village women for tree climbing and hanging out with the boys, she ignores rather than bucks tradition. But one fateful day, she has her first period and finds herself the center of the ladies' attention. (It's interesting that there is barely an adult male in the film.) Offering a glimpse into society’s strict rules regarding women, they perform a ceremony around this rite of passage which includes painting her nose and forehead bright red, like the scarlet letter. Dhunu just looks bemused in her new sari and earrings. The next day, she is back climbing trees, thanks to her mother’s profoundly intelligent tolerance and pride in having such a unique daughter.

Das’ widescreen photography is less conventionally beautiful than Man With the Binoculars, but it has a pleasing aesthetic of its own, quietly echoing the flatness of the landscape, the distant horizons and pastel colors. Her shots of Dhunu ferrying a little boy across the flooded fields in a wooden boat have a natural elegance, like the children’s excursions down country roads and up trees, where they rest in the branches like monkeys. All the kids are natural actors, but Bhanita Das is a standout in every scene. As the work-worn mother, Basanti Das embodies the refreshing lack of sentimentality that gives the film its modern attitude.

Production company: Flying River Films
Cast: Bhanita Das, Basanti Das, Kulada Bhattacharya, Boloram Das, Rinku Das, Bishnu Kalita, Manabendra Das, Bhaskar Das, Padma Sharma, Subhash Das
Director-screenwriter-editor-director of photography-production designer-costume designer-casting: Rima Das
Producers: Rima Das, Jaya Das
Music: Nilotpal Borah
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (Indian Gold)
World sales: Asian Shadows

87 minutes