Village Rockstars Review: An intimate snapshot of rural yearning
Rima Das' National Award-winning film captures childhood in rural Assam with magical camerawork and immersive sound design
The river in Chaygaon has a vicious lust. It takes as it pleases: a bridge, a boat, a father. 10-year-old Dhunu (Bhanita Das) stands defiant against the river’s whim, sloganeering with her friends for a ban on ‘rain’ and ‘flood’. Nature surrounds her and laps her up; it is a soothing friend and a treacherous enemy. We hear the sounds — crickets buzzing, puddles spreading, raindrops hitting hard on thin asbestos — and watch as the sky turns grey. Dhunu squints, looking up, but her expression does not change. She is not fearful. Not yet.
Directed by independent filmmaker Rima Das, Village Rockstars, India’s official entry to the 2019 Oscars, is a soaring snapshot of childhood in rural Assam. It is a film that believes in its own minimalism, always willing to break the medium into its most essential unit: the shot. We get grand exteriors of spiky mudflats dotted by cattle and kids; we get intimate mid-shots, of mothers swimming in creeks and daughters paddling along; we also get tender close-ups, mostly of Dhunu’s head jouncing along to her styrofoam guitar.
What a troublemaker, exclaim the aunts and neighbours of Dhunu’s life. She is scolded for loitering around with boys, and for climbing tall betel nut trees. Dhunu does these things of her own accord — the boys are members of her upcoming band, and the betel-picking helps save up for a (real) guitar. Her mother, a widowed textile weaver, is simultaneously watchful and tender with her parenting. Docile in her presence, Dhunu can be quite a gangster otherwise, like when she raps a rich village kid for slapping her the other day.
Das creates lingering magic with her Canon 5D (the revolutionary DSLR camera turns 10 this year), while Amrit Pritam’s immersive sound design is an absolute sonic lullaby. Much of the film proceeds wordlessly — the few dialogues in Assamese are murmured for rhythmic purposes instead of narrative ones. Even angst, an emotion often expressed through verbal outbursts, is denied any formal utterance. So self-assured is Das about the universality of her themes that she barely stops to explain cultural rites of passage (like Dhunu’s initiation into womanhood) or interpret complex gender norms for what they really are.
Village Rockstars is a film that hinges too close on the viewer’s interior, demanding participation and trust at a deep, subliminal level. It is a sharply observed local document, one that presents itself with the confidence of a sweeping human parable. In the film’s eye, we are all scampering little children, carving out dreams from styrofoam, waiting for the tide to ebb. Some of us make it till the end, like Dhunu in the film’s climax, and stand softened against a setting sun, guitar in hand.