“This is the story of a girl who does things differently from other girls in her village,” Rima Das told the audience, as she stood onstage to introduce her film at the ongoing 70th Cannes Film Festival. The Assamese filmmaker, who was selected for the ‘Go to Cannes’ section (for work-in-progress films) at the festival’s film market this year, may well have been talking about herself.
Like Dhunu, the little girl in her film Village Rockstars, Das also grew up in Chhaygaon village in Kamrup district of Assam. In the film, Dhunu wants to own a guitar and become a musician. Growing up in the same village, mostly inhabited by poor families, Das dreamed of becoming an actor. In the film, Dhunu’s vision is backed by her widowed mother. In real life, Das enjoys the support of her parents. Dhunu eventually doesn’t step out of Chhaygaon, but Das, on the other hand, is living her dream at film festivals around the world.
A long journey
With no feature or documentary film from India in the official selection or parallel sections at Cannes this year, Das’ feature film, which is in the post-production stage, carries the hopes of the country’s independent filmmakers. Village Rockstars is Das’ second feature film after Man with the Bincoulars, which premiered at the 2016 Mumbai Film Festival.
Das’ journey to Cannes this year started when Village Rockstars was selected by the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market in March for a collaboration with Marché du Film, the film market at Cannes Film Festival. Village Rockstars was one of four films selected. “The Hong Kong selection helped me reach Cannes,” says Das. “Village Rockstars spoke with a genuine voice about a universal theme: follow your dreams,” says Roger Garcia, head of the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, a film financing platform, which is part of the Hong Kong Film & TV Market. As many as 30 film projects are selected by the forum every year from among 1,000 entries from 35 countries, primarily from Asia. The films are aided in securing post-production funds, sales agents and film festival support.
“The footage of Village Rockstars is very authentic,” says Matthew Poon, a member of the forum. “You can tell it’s very attached to the director. You can also feel the love of the director towards the film based simply on the 10-minute footage shown,” says Poon.
Behind the scenes
Das’ parents (her father is a school teacher and her mother owns a bookshop and printing press) provided the money for her first film, which will be released in November this year. While she had family support for her second venture as well, Das wasn’t prepared to stretch it. So she put together a completely non-professional cast for Village Rockstars, roping in children from her village. The children not only acted in her film, but also helped with other work like changing the camera lens, handling the tripod, etc. “I chose six children for the main cast,” says Das, who used a Canon 5D to shoot the film. “I saw myself in these kids.”
Das left her village in Assam for Pune to do her masters in sociology in 2007. “After university, I wanted to become an actor,” she says. “I did some theatre, short films and commercials.” In the process, she was introduced to independent films and filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick and Abbas Kiarostami. “I thought I can also tell a story.” In 2009, Das wrote a short story about a girl in her village back in Assam. “The story was about tradition. In fact, there are glimpses of that girl in Dhunu’s character in Village Rockstars,” says Das, who spent a month at an editing residency in Rome before arriving in the French Riviera (the Rome residency gave Das her first professional crew in the form of French editor Jacques Comet).
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Das’ transformation into a filmmaker happened in 2011 when she brought herself the Canon 5D camera. “I started writing a story, developed a script in another two years and Man with the Binoculars was born,” she says. The shooting of the film got completed in 2015, leading to its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. The film also went to the Cannes film market last year, as well as the 2016 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.
After making Man with the Binoculars, Das spent some time at her home in Chhaygaon and that gave her the opportunity to meet the young children in her village. “I found the intensity of these children very infectious,” she says. Soon, the story of Dhunu began to take shape. Das started shooting in December 2014, improvising the script as the shooting progressed. “It was an experience to shoot during the floods in Assam in July 2015,” says Das.
As soon as she finished shooting in November last year, the film was invited for the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival’s work-in-progress lab and the National Film Development Corporation’s Film Bazaar in Goa. The spirit and enthusiasm of the village children are carrying the film forward, Das says.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer.