SAN SEBASTIAN — Championed by Toronto’s Cameron Bailey, playing to rotund applause at the festival’s Discovery section, then clinching a rave review from Variety, which called it “a charming Indian answer to ‘Sing Street,’” with a heartfelt theme of female empowerment and self-actualization,” “Village Rockstars’” own production story stands in real life parallel to the story in the film.
In fiction, Dhunu, a feisty 10-year-old girl living in Chhaygaon, near Guwahati in north-east India’s Assam, attends a mini-boy band concert and determines to own her own guitar. And nothing will stop her. In reality, director Rima Das decided to follow-up her debut, “The Man With Binoculars,” with the tale of kids from her own village forming a rockbound. Nothing stopped her either. Variety e-chatted to Das about a two-women production, made on a shoestring, which now plays San Sebastian’s New Directors competition. It hits the festival as one of the section’s forerunners.
Your debut feature, “The Man with Binoculars,” about a retired geography teacher whose life changes when he is given some binoculars, was also set in Assam, What inspires you to make films in your homeland and, in” Village Rockstars,” in your own home village?
Coming from a remote village in Assam (Northeast India) and growing up before satellite TV or even Internet, I knew nothing of World Cinema. I came to Mumbai to explore my talents as an actor and here I got exposed to the larger film universe. My interest veered towards filmmaking. After watching films across the world, I realized it will be best to tell stories and talk about a setting I am familiar with. I like to go through deep studies of my characters before making movies. So I thought home will be the best place to start. Again, since I consider these two films as my “film school” and I knew it will take a long time to finish them, therefore being around in my village was the best start of my day with mom cooking food!
”The Man With Binoculars” was selected to screen in Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in 2016. How important was that to you – to play at a recognized festival?
Yes, very important. Tallinn BNF is a major European breakthrough. Before that, I did a market screening at Cannes same year to test the waters. I also attended numerous producer workshops at Cannes which helped me learn about sales agents, marketing, distribution etc.
Later that year when Tallinn BNF invited me, I knew I had reached the quality standard that is fitting to compete in a global festival of this level. I was very grateful. It boosted my confidence and morale.
The credit roll describes you as writer, director, producer, editor, cinematographer and art director. Was this multi-tasking a question of budget or also of personal choice?
Both. Of course, budget was an initial factor but later, at the same time, I could not risk the integrity and quality of “Village Rockstars’” story line. I demanded complete control and freedom on the project. So, you can say it is also a personal choice. Doing things single-handedly, I stayed stubborn about getting what I wanted. It helped me immensely.
When writing “Village Rockstars,” did you receive any mentorship or script doctoring? And how long did it take to write?
No, I did not receive such external mentoring. “Village Rockstars” is a very spontaneous idea, born out of my realization when I was back in my village after staying in Mumbai for long period. One evening, I stumbled upon these boys playing in a gathering with fake instruments. My journey started then. As I spent time with the children I began to get to know them, which helped me to add layers to “Village Rockstars.” I kept writing and re-writing. Shooting was a continuous process of three-and-a-half years. The actual shoot took around 130 days during this period.
The film was originally about a boy’s band. The character of Dhunu was added later, you’ve said. Why the addition?
Initially I was shooting with boys and I spotted Bhanita most of the time doing tricks and playing around. She stole my heart and reminded me of my childhood. The idea of adding her to the mix excited me, the story line flowed.
The film is obviously set in a very poor part of India. Save for the flood, which destroys the family’s crop, the poverty is mostly portrayed by implication, however: the straw and basic stone of the hut a school friend lives in; the meals of just rice. Why is that?
Realistic cinema always attracts me. This has been my foundation. I always look for authenticity. Village life in Assam is poor. This is a reality. For the children, a meal of just rice is not abnormal. Despite this they also have dreams and lead a fun-filled life. “Village Rockstars” is about the celebration of life in a realistic situation.
The film’s budget is described as $100,000. Where did the money come from and what was it mostly used on?
When I look at $100,000 over four years, mostly this came from odd jobs I did and the rest I borrowed from family and friends. Post-production work, developing screeners, travel to works-in-progress presentations at labs, taking care of the children in whatever little way I could, are areas where this was spent. Besides I had to survive these four years too as a writer, director, producer etc. Looking at these expenses, I quoted the budget for the market at $100,000.
You shot “Village Rockstars” yourself, despite no film school training or camera crew. Did any films inspire you in terms of frame composition and shoot set-ups?
It will be difficult to name one film in particular with regards to frame composition or set ups, but extensive viewing of films across the world greatly influenced me. But when I shoot, I just forget everything. I like to follow my character, what my story is saying, in that scene. So, I take instinctive decisions. I shoot what I see. There was no storyboard nor do I plan too much.
”Village Rockstars” first drew initially attention by screening in the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF). How important was selection for its works-in-progress section?
It was very important. Having HAF’s backing helped me build momentum towards major screenings in reputed world festivals. Also, competing with a rough cut and winning in two categories at HAF, Hong Kong Goes to Cannes & White Light post-production grant reaffirmed my belief that I was on the right track. Other platforms like NFDC, Industry Tallinn and PJLF Editing Arts Fund also helped.
I believe you’re preparing a third film, a teen love story, again set in your own village. Will you produce again? After what seems a trilogy would you consider taking on a producer for a larger-budgeted film?
Yes, my intention so far has been to produce my third film on my own too. But I am open to co-producers. The experience from “Village Rockstars” is a good lesson. I do not wish to compromise on quality and want to continue on this journey. I am of course ready for larger-budgeted films. Having been at TIFF, San Sebastian and the MAMI Mumbai film festival are opening lot of possibilities.