Written by: Shreya Seth
Film Review: Village Rockstars
Director: Rima Das
Cast: Bhanita Das, Basanti Das, Manabendra Das
Seldom do we come across stories that can communicate to a wide range of audiences without trying too hard. Village Rockstars is one such organic and refreshing film that marks a departure from conventional forms of storytelling and consumes you if you allow yourself to succumb to the flow. Set in a remote village in Assam named Chayagaon, Village Rockstars is a coming of age story of a ten-year-old girl who dreams of owning a guitar and forming a rock band with her friends. While the desire to own a guitar may not seem impossible to some, Dhunu (Bhanita Das) is dreaming of the impossible amidst poverty and natural calamities. The director establishes the striking gap between Dhunu’s desires and the lived reality from the very beginning, letting the surroundings speak for the improbability of Dhunu’s dreams yet engaging the viewers and reminding them to keep their hopes intact through all times.
Village Rockstars, India’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards in the ‘best foreign language film’ category is Rima Das’s second feature film after Antardrishti (The man with the binoculars; 2016) and has been winning hearts worldwide. The film does not heavily depend on a storyline, and its beauty essentially lies in the absence of one. It is marked by limited dialogues and meaningful silences as it progresses at a leisurely pace to capture Dhunu’s desires in the backdrop of natural adversities and prejudices, while also touching upon the quotidian details of a village in rural Assam.
Rima Das, dearly referred to as the ‘one-woman army’ pulled off the entire film by juggling between all aspects from screen-writing, direction, cinematography, editing to production design. She left no stone unturned and dared to dream, just like her protagonist Dhunu. While making a film is a tedious and cumbersome process, I’m often reminded of how effortless it looks on screen. But the same isn’t true for Village Rockstars, I was aware of its independent structure all along and couldn’t help but marvel at the brilliance of Rima Das who devoted four years to complete the film. The film is a visual treat with beautiful landscapes and resilient skies that melt into a different shade with every frame. The sound design of the film is soothing and authentic and adds to the natural set-up. The rustling of leaves on a breezy day, the pitter-patter of droplets, and the gushing wind can almost be felt and immerse one completely as the film unfolds.
While the narrative is extremely convincing and reflects on the life of Dhunu, her mother (Basanti Das) and shows the little hardships in the aftermath of the floods, at no point does the film attempt to garner sympathy or dramatize the events. Dhunu climbs trees and loiters around the village with other boys, occasionally fetching betel nuts to save money for a ‘real’ guitar. In a moving scene, Dhunu asks her mother why she farms the land every year only to lose the crops, to which her mother bluntly replies that ‘hard work is their only religion.’ Dhunu’s mother Basanti Das, is a single mother who has survived hardships, but continues to be fierce and independent. She struggles to make ends meet but realizes the worth of her daughter’s dreams and never tries to curtail her movement. She teaches Dhunu how to swim, but also reprimands her when she ventures out into the flood waters on a boat. The director beautifully captures the mother as a strong and sensitive character who doesn’t hesitate to snap at women who ridicule Dhunu for defying gender norms and loves observing her daughter play with the boys from a distance.
Rima Das’s ‘Village Rockstars’ with its choice of natural locations, non-professional actors and objective portrayal of the harsh realities of life is reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ in many ways. The wrath of nature and the persistent efforts of the commoners to cope with natural calamities have also been captured in both the films, while Dhunu’s free-spirited and playful nature reminds us of Ray’s strong and exuberant Durga. However, the biggest takeaway from Village Rockstars is that the film does not attempt to magnify the struggles of the children and instead captures them as carefree and unmoved by the constant hardships. The children are seen enjoying in the most difficult of circumstances – wading through water to attend school, playing with musical instruments made from thermocol sheets, resting on the barks of trees while sharing their dreams, and innocently shouting slogans against the floods which submerged their houses and trees.
The rustic charm of the village and the indomitable spirit of the children, especially Dhunu, who harvest dreams in the most unlikely of circumstances, make the film an unforgettable experience. Stellar performances by all the actors, who happen to be non-professionals to our surprise, add to the beauty of the narrative. The direction and the editing of the film are smooth enabling each scene to seamlessly flow into another. Rima Das’s film is brave at various levels and brings a pocketful of hope and hardships from a remote village in Assam, leaving us waiting for more.