Rima Das on seeking inspiration from nature during lockdown, and the North East stigma attached to coronavirus
Rima Das talks about how the lockdown is helping nature heal, and how the cancellation of film festivals will serve as a setback to independent cinema.
Rima Das, the director of two National Award-winning Assamese films Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing, is in her Mumbai home during the coronavirus lockdown. However, she claims she is enjoying the isolation despite being away from the place she thrives the most — in the lap of nature. Excerpts from an interview:
Both Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing were clearly inspired from, among other things, your love for nature and the outdoor. Now that you are confined to your home, where are you seeking inspiration to stage your next film from?
My inspiration comes from life, for my previous films and even for the next one. It is a strange and difficult time but it’s also a time of self-realisation. I have learnt many things. I value time, the people in my life, and the little things in life more. We usually take little things for granted, like say having a laptop. Now, due to the lockdown, I wonder what if it suddenly breaks down?
As for nature, it is an important part of my films. I can’t physically be present outdoors. The five senses still keep me connected to the outside world. I can still see the sea, the birds, the sky through my window. At night, when I can’t see them, I can still hear the waves. There’s a world of content online. Through meditation and imagination, I could be on a tree, near meadows or by the river.
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Do you believe this distance and eventual reconnecting will inspire more filmmakers to make cinema that is close to nature?
Probably, yes. It is very subjective. Even while I am indoors, I still feel connected to nature. The five senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling work differently for different people. I am also curious to see what different filmmakers will create after this phase of isolation amidst the pandemic.
Do you think your two films on Netflix (Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing) will help those sick of the lockdown transport themselves into a world they may be desperately craving?
Almost every day, I receive tweets, Instagram stories, Facebook comments telling me that these films make them happy. Some find it meditative. Some others said the films give them hope. Others find that the film gives them a feel of being outdoors. A couple in a long distance relationship told me that they saw Bulbul Can Sing at the same time at their respective homes while they were together on video call. They were crying, laughing, watching the film together.
Village Rockstars was recently included in the syllabus of class 7 in Assam schools. Do you believe the role of an artist is as much to educate as much as entertain? Will this inform your future decisions?
In every difficult moment of my life, when I could see no hope, there's been work of art that's inspired me. There's been a film, a song, a poetry or a painting that has motivated me to keep going. Even in these gloomy times, people are looking up to art to find their light at the end of the tunnel. Can't say much about the future as of now. But as a storyteller, I like to challenge myself and experiment. I would like to tell new stories. Stories are soulful, authentic, moving, and can stimulate thoughts.
You recently donated a lakh rupees to relief efforts in Assam. At the same time, you must be aware that a lot of North East Indians, including the Assamese, have been targeted in other cities for the unfortunate stigma attached to China and coronavirus. How would you respond to this racially-coloured outrage?
When I came to Mumbai years ago, people asked me whether I am from China or I am from Nepal. But a lot has changed. The internet has made the world global. It's really sad and unfortunate that this is still happening, even in such difficult times. Initiatives should be taken to sensitise people, and action should be taken to avoid such incidents.
You were on the Berlinale jury this year. But a lot of film festivals were cancelled after that. How do you think this setback will affect the prospects of independent filmmakers?
Nothing beats the joy of having your film play on the big screen in a theatre along with the audience. You get first-hand reactions. You interact with people from different countries. It’s a strong community feeling. Independent films thrive in the film festival ecosystem. It's an opportunity to connect with not just audience but also critics, prospective exhibitors, and distributors. Luckily, Berlin happened but it's not about getting into just one big film festival, but making the journey at different festivals. There were quite a few Indian films as well, showcased at Berlin. Films that were screened at Berlin, and also new films that were scheduled to be screened at Cannes, Venice, and other festivals are stuck now. So much effort goes into making a film, it’s disheartening to see what’s happening. Online festivals is a stop-gap solution but it can’t make up for the festival experience.
You usually cast Assamese actors (irrespective of their acting experience), including family members, in your films. How did you think of looking outward, and casting Tillotama Shome in the next one? What can you tell us about that film?
My previous films were based in my village in Assam. They were shot in natural conditions, over years. The films demanded that I should cast local people, who are familiar with the language and the life there. For my next, the character lives in Mumbai. When I watched Sir at Cannes, I knew I found my actor. Tillotama Shome fits the character perfectly. I am not restricting myself that I will make films only in Assam or Mumbai. The location and cast would depend on the script.
Since a lockdown is in place, are you struggling with communicating with Tillotama about the project? Because most of the cast and crew in your past films have been geographically closer to you.
I have been developing my next film for the past five years. It’s already been two years since I met Tillotama at Cannes, and the process of preparing for the film begun. Before the lockdown, we had quite a a lot of conversations and meetings. I got her to visit my village in Assam as well. It's going to be an interesting creative collaboration. My approach, though, isn’t much different from that of my previous films. Back then, I had the advantage of being able to spend more time with my actors and exploring more things. But the stories were based on experiences and imagination, and that still remains the same even for my upcoming film.
Would you have been rather isolated at your home in Assam than in Mumbai? How different would things have been in that case?
I have a big family of almost 10 people. So there would always be someone around. I could walk around in my backyard. In the village, we have this habit of shouting loudly from the backyard and talking to neighbours' standing in their backyard. You might have seen it my films as well. If I were there, I could also be more involved in helping the community.
Initially, I felt it would be better I would have been better off if I had been at home during the lockdown. But as a filmmaker, I am glad I got to experience this feeling of isolation, lack of freedom, and being alone. I feel one with people across the world in their pain and hope.
All images from YouTube.
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