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Toronto Film Review: ‘Village Rockstars’

A charming Indian answer to "Sing Street," with a heartfelt theme of female empowerment and self-actualization.

With:
Bhanita Das, Basanti Das, Kulada Bhattyacharya, Manabendra Das, Boloram Das, Rinku Das, Bishnu Kalta, Bhaskar Das. (Assamese dialogue)

When the Dublin schoolboys of “Sing Street” form a band, it’s all about scoring with a girl. In “Village Rockstars,” tucked away in an Indian backwater, a moppet also has rock ‘n’ roll dreams, but her goal of becoming a guitarist is motivated by larger issues, like rebellion, empowerment — and to send a message to the universe. Pluckily optimistic and unsentimental to a fault, writer-director Rima Das’ second film is a tonic to third world poverty porn. Das shot the film almost single-handedly on a minuscule budget, but it doesn’t impair the movie’s visual quality or its market potential one bit. In fact, the picture’s rustic charm and “You go, girl!” attitude should rock the house.

In opening titles, Das dedicates the film to her hometown of Chahaygaon in the northeast India state of Assam, and sure enough, every frame brims with affection. But she’s not the first filmmaker to base creative works on personal memories, and “Village Rockstars” also boasts considerable artistry, shot in a light-footed style that’s part documentary, part tone-poem, without leaning on crowd-pleasing insertions of songs or performance numbers.

Ten-year-old Dhunu (Bhanita Das) lives in a village in Assam with her widowed mother (Basanti Das) and elder brother Manabendra (Manabendra Das). While helping her mother sell snacks at a local event, she becomes mesmerized by a band that’s performing there. The part that’s so delightfully hokey: the boys belt out their hits with musical instruments made of styrofoam. She proceeds to copy them, carving a guitar Jimi Hendrix would be proud of.

Impressionable and tenacious at the same time, Dhunu reads a comic book and decides she wants to form a band playing real instruments. Rupee by rupee, she begins to save for an electric guitar. She reads an article in a scrap newspaper and decides that positive thinking can make the guitar materialize. The whole premise sounds endearingly naive, yet Dhunu’s brilliance in everything she does transforms the cheesy bromides into a rallying cry for hope and self-reliance.

The family’s penury can be gleaned from details like meals consisting solely of rice, without curry; the community’s overall backwardness is obvious from the citizens reliance on manual labor. Nevertheless, hardships co-exist with the simple pleasures of country living, and the ambling narrative consists mainly of Dhunu taking long walks to and from school with her all-boy clique.

Das’ attractive widescreen compositions remind one how carefree the children are, having vast space and scenic nature to roam around in. Even after a flood (which we learn is a yearly occurence) ravages Dhunu’s meager farmland, she and the boys still have fun scowling on all fours, pretending to be dogs.

Recent Indian documentaries, and narrative features like “Sexy Durga” have raised awareness on sexual discrimination and violence against women in the nation. “Village Rockstars” also explores this as the central theme, but in a gentler manner. The village crones, defending social propriety, reprimand Dhunu for climbing trees and hanging out with boys, but like Calamity Jane, she’s utterly irrepressible. Her mother, an indefatigable workhorse, plays a decisive role by letting her daughter be herself.

Das also observes a condition common in male-dominated societies: Sons, prized and coddled, become weaklings, while daughters must learn to stand up for themselves. Dhunu’s athleticism and enthusiasm in class are contrasted with Manabendra’s laziness at home and in class; he skips school at the slightest excuse. Even more starkly, the children’s father, too frightened to learn to swim, drowns in the flood.

By focusing on tween characters, the picture evokes that freewheeling stage when gender roles are still blurry in the friendships between boys and girls. Then as suddenly as a monsoon, Dhunu’s first period arrives. The rituals held to initiate her into womanhood — making her wear a sari, segregating her from the boys — are seen as attempts to enforce her otherness. Throughout the colorful ceremony, Das’ camera is fixed on Dhunu’s sulkily defiant face.

Incorporated alongside long shots of the young protagonists against their familiar surroundings, Nilotpal Borah’s score, as rueful as a sigh, evokes how, as the children inch toward adulthood, their bond may never be the same. But given the filmmaker’s enlightened intentions, giving up or accepting one’s lot is simply not in the cards for our pesky heroine. The film avoids becoming conventionally schmaltzy by closing with a wordless but vibrantly melodic montage.

The cast members, all non-professionals recruited from Das’ village, look like they’re just going about their daily business. Natural beauty Bhanita Das is a lovable ball of energy, but she also steals hearts in quieter moments, as when she communes with her beloved goat, Munu.

Shot over two years, on a budget of just over $100,000, the film features an overall tech package that looks just fine, enjoying a glossy sheen via visual effects by White Light, a Thai post-production house known for its slate of independent Asian films.

Toronto Film Review: 'Village Rockstars'

Reviewed online, Vancouver, Sept. 10, 2017. Running time: 87 MIN.  

Production: (India) A Flying River Films production. (International sales: Asian Shadows, Hong Kong.) Producer: Rima Das. Co-producer: Jaya Das.

Crew: Director, writer, editor: Rima Das. Camera (color, HD): Das. Music: Nilotpal Borah.

With: Bhanita Das, Basanti Das, Kulada Bhattyacharya, Manabendra Das, Boloram Das, Rinku Das, Bishnu Kalta, Bhaskar Das. (Assamese dialogue)

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