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Chhaygaon goes to LA

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 28, 2018

Watch and tell: Rima Das’s Village Rockstars has worked completely on word-of-mouth   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AYUSH DAS

Rima Das, director of Village Rockstars, on working by herself, being inspired by her village and taking the film to the Oscars

Director Rima Das is running against time. On the back of the news that her film Village Rockstars is India’s official entry to the Oscars, she is in Mumbai working to make the Academy Awards journey a success. She has to organise her trip to Los Angeles, look for funds and ensure that the Assamese-language feature film gets watched and is publicised. The unassuming film, which won 44 awards around the world, including three national awards, and was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, has so far been publicised mostly by word of mouth.

Das came to Mumbai, like many others, to become an actor. But soon she found herself picking up her camera. Her directorial debut Man with the Binoculars, premiered in the First Feature Competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia in 2016. Village Rockstars, a coming-of-age film, is set in her own village — Chhaygaon — in Assam. It revolves around a 10-year-old girl Dhunu, who longs to own a guitar and form a band with her all-male friends. Her single mother, who raises Dhunu and her brother, struggles to keep the family afloat with the small earnings from their tiny farm patch, which gets flooded every year. She, however, tries not to let her worries affect her children, and chides them for earning money on the side in a bid to share her burden.

To be eligible for the Oscars, a film needs to be released in the home country on or before September 30. Village Rockstars, which won the best film trophy at the national awards this year, was released on September 28. BLink caught up with Das (36) for a telephonic interview. Edited excerpts.

Village Rockstars has been screened before a wide range of audiences around the world. How did they respond to it?

I can safely say that the film has received overwhelmingly positive responses from across the world. The audience connected with the authenticity of the people in the film, their link with nature and the inherent simplicity of Village Rockstars. Many people at festivals abroad also spoke of the mother-daughter relationship and its power.

There are many moments of silence in the film when the kids contemplate the world around them. What influences your film’s language?

It isn’t uncommon in my village in Assam for people to take time out for the blue skies or to enjoy the weather. Life in cities — for instance, my spell in Mumbai — can be so mechanical. I take time off to go home whenever I can, just to experience life like that again and find that connection to nature, an aspect which many found soothing in the film. They loved how the characters experienced nature, and that made the film unique.

What is your plan, now that India has selected the film as its official entry for the Oscars?

I realise that I can’t handle the Oscars alone. Till now, I’ve tackled every aspect of the film by myself, but now it isn’t my film anymore, it’s India’s official entry to the Academy Awards. I realise that I need help, and I need it urgently, to give it a fair shot, whether it comes from the government or any private corporation. I’ve attended enough film festivals and watched the films in competition around the world to understand that my film will be up against many other deserving works. I was hopeful from the beginning that the film would be selected for the Oscars, since it’s done well in different film festivals, especially after it bagged the Toronto International Film Festival premiere last year.

Technology hasn’t pervaded the life of the people in the film at all. Is that an authentic representation?

It would be wrong to say no one uses a mobile phone or the internet in the village, but it isn’t as integral a part of their lives as it is in the cities. Children can still be found playing, as shown in the film, and are not glued to video games. In that way, it seems very idyllic, but it’s a true representation, as technology is still not all-pervasive.

Why did you choose to work with amateur actors in all your films?

I chose to work with amateurs because they don’t have doubts, and they completely surrender to the script. Also, with them I can be more flexible about my schedule. I live in Mumbai and my films are all based in Assam. I get to shoot when I travel, and with professional actors that’s very difficult to do as it requires planning and coordination.

And why do you choose to write, direct and produce your films?

I like to work alone since I don’t have a film school degree. It is difficult working with a crew of film school products who follow a certain process. I was discovering my style and wanted to take as much time as I could with it. Village Rockstars was made in four years, while my current film Bulbul Can Sing was made in one. So, I also learn during the process, and that would be difficult with a crew. I have financed all my films.

Is the mother-daughter relationship, which forms a core part of the film, inspired in any way from your own life?

I wouldn’t say the mother-daughter relationship is autobiographical. My mother is also fiercely independent and ambitious, but Dhunu’s mother is drawn from my imagination, from a combination of the mothers I’ve known.

The menstruation scene in the film, when Dhunu attains puberty, marks a point of departure. Why was it such a crucial part of the plot?

I wanted to put in the menstruation scene to make a point about how a girl’s life can take a turn for the worse after she attains puberty, something that happened to me as well. Everyone tells you that you have become a woman, treats you like one and tells you to stay away from boys, or not climb trees and so on. I hadn’t paid attention to all this at that age, and I wanted the character in my film to also stand out. While these things may not be forbidden (or can be in certain families), as soon as you attain puberty, people start viewing you differently or practise segregation, which has an impact on a child’s life who’s only 11.

Payel Majumdar Upreti

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Published on September 28, 2018
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