Village Rockstars movie review: India’s official Oscars entry is too pure for this cruel world
Director - Rima Das
Cast - Bhanita Das, Basanti Das
Rating - 4/5
To create something from nothing, that is the purest distillation of what filmmaking is about. To look at emptiness and imagine stories, to look at faces and imagine pasts, to look at a blank screen and see the world. To rustle up funding, to convince a cast and crew to follow your commands, to con audiences into believing the tales that you have to tell. To tell beautiful lies.
Director Rima Das made something from nothing and she expects the same of her characters.
Watch the Village Rockstars trailer here
Dhunu has no curry to go with her rice; when it rains - which happens often - she protects herself not with an umbrella but with a large leaf, hastily ripped from its roots; and if you observe closely, you’d notice that she has no more than a couple of changes of clothes. Dhunu doesn’t have much, but she has dreams.
With the rest of her friends - she’s the only girl in a group of five children on the cusp of adulthood of the old-fashioned kind - Dhunu pretends that she belongs to a rock band. With neither the means nor the encouragement to actually pursue their dreams, the children humour themselves by crafting their own instruments - a piece of cardboard is cut into the shape of a guitar, a wooden plank acts as a drum kit, a chopped log doubles as a microphone.
Like Rima Das, they, too, stared into nothingness - even a child’s gaze cannot cloak the harsh reality of their lives - and found that fantasy, however temporary, however far-fetched, is vital to their survival.
Dhunu and her friends live in a remote Assamese village, where the skies and the earth are inseparable, lit in the amber of a perpetual sunset. It is a place where ambition goes only as far as the eye can see. In one of the film’s rare moments of dialogue, a village elder encourages Dhunu to go to school, to get a scholarship - not to change the world, but to be able to sell milk and vegetables, and to avoid a life like her mother’s.
But Dhunu’s future is right there before her eyes - most of her neighbours were born in the village, and most of them expect to die there. But in her daughter, Dhunu’s mother sees her past - of what life was like before the troubles began, as they do, when one is no longer a child.
Life is different for her now; hard work, as she teaches Dhunu, is all that she has; it is all that people like her have. And so she works, hard, to protect her daughter from the vengeful wrath of nature and the inevitability of having to grow up. For as long as she can.
Das’ film breaks every narrative and technical rule I can think of - there are no first, second, or third acts, nor is there even the faintest whiff of a plot. In its sensibilities it resembles a Terrence Malick movie - filmed in the warmth of the magic hour, with a camera that is as stoic as it is inquisitive. There is even a shot of a hand gliding over tall grass, framed in soft focus - it is a favourite of Malick’s, and has been recreated by legions of his devotees to the point of parody.
But more than Malick and the existential poetry of his films, Village Rockstars’ closest cinematic cousins are director Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 fable about climate change, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Sean Baker’s 2017 masterpiece, The Florida Project, which Village Rockstars follows right down to its ambiguously euphoric conclusion.
Like those films, Village Rockstars is a child’s perspective of our world and its people, told with a lump in its throat and hope in its heart. But instead of those films’ magic realism, Village Rockstars melds the dreamlike visuals of Sofia Coppola with the neo-realism of Vittorio De Sica, only the bicycle has been replaced by a guitar, and the music by images and sounds.
So immaculate are Das’ frames - she has, in addition to writing and directing, also edited, produced and shot the film - and so breathtaking is her sound design, that not a tripod nor a note of music is needed to make you make you feel exactly what she wants you to feel. The pitter-patter of raindrops, the gushing of streams, the rumble of clouds, perfectly framed silhouettes against the setting sun, creamy clouds the colour of sadness; this is all that Das needs to completely immerse you in her world.
It is a film that is both challenging and inviting at the same time - the disregard for conventional storytelling could prove to be too wide a bridge to cross for some. But Village Rockstars rewards patience, and in its final moments, earns every right to be called one of the year’s best films.
Village Rockstars is being released by VKAAO in India.